A setback for reformists

Print edition : March 26, 2004

A demonstration in Teheran after Friday prayers on February 6 in support of the Guardian Council's decision to debar reformist candidates from contesting the polls. - MORTEZA NIKOUBAZL/REUTERS

More than the triumph of the conservatives, which was not unexpected, the voter turnout disappoints the Iranian reformists, who had given a boycott call.

THE landslide victory of the conservatives in the Iranian parliamentary elections in the third week of February was a foregone conclusion. With the Guardian Council refusing to endorse the candidature of prominent reformists, the elections lacked political choice. Even otherwise, according to many observers of Iranian politics, the reformists had lost much of their sheen. They had conceded defeat even before the first vote was cast. The spokesman for the "Coalition for Iran", the eight-party reformist group contesting the polls, told the media, a few days before the elections that the reformists "would be a minority in Parliament". Reformist politicians who chose to contest the elections had said that the presence of a strong Opposition in Parliament would be good for the future of democracy in Iran.

Despite the call by prominent reformist politicians for a boycott of the elections, more than 50 per cent of the electorate voted. The voter turnout was lower than in earlier elections but enough to give the electoral process the required legitimacy. In the 2000 parliamentary elections, the turnout was around 67 per cent. According to political commentators, if the polling had been less than 40 per cent, then it would have severely dented the credibility of the political system ushered in by a referendum after the 1979 Islamic revolution. As recent electoral trends show, the public has been alienated from the political establishment. In the municipal elections held in Teheran a year ago, the turnout was less than 12 per cent. This year's voter turnout was the lowest for parliamentary elections in Iran since the revolution. Significantly, people born after the revolution constitute most of the population of 66.5 million. Many reformists have been calling for another referendum to decide the future course of Iranian politics.

Mohammad Reza, President Khatami's brother and the head of Iran's main reformist party, the Islamic Iran Participation Front (IIPF), at a press conference in Teheran on February 5.-AJIT KUMAR/AP

President Hojatoleslam Seyed Mohammad Khatami took care to distance himself from the boycott call by prominent reformists. The main reformist party, led by his brother Mohammad Reza, and the main pro-reform students organisation had called on the 46-million electorate to stay at home. Shirin Ebadi, the Nobel Peace Prize winner also announced her decision to abstain from casting her ballot. "I cannot tell people to vote or not to vote, but I will not vote, because I do not know any of the candidates who have been allowed to run," Ebadi told the media in Teheran, a few days before the elections.

The 679 reformist candidates cleared by the Guardian Council had withdrawn from the fray in protest. Khatami was among the first to cast his vote and exhorted fellow citizens to cast their votes for the reformist candidates who had replaced those barred from contesting. In a statement, he appealed to the people to vote "despite the unfairness of the elections".

Hasan Rowhani, head of the Supreme National Security Council, at a press conference at the Iranian Embassy in New Delhi on February 26.-ATTA KENARE/AFP

TWO leading newspapers, Shargh and Yas-e-No, which are identified with the reformists, were closed down by the authorities a few days before the elections. The papers had printed a letter from reformist Members of Parliament criticising the supreme spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, for his stance on the election issue. "You lead a system in which legitimate freedoms and the rights of the people are being trampled upon in the name of Islam. The organs under your authority for four years humiliated Parliament and its deputies by blocking legislation and have most openly blocked the most basic right of the people to choose and be chosen," the letter said. The election offices of the Islamic Participation Front, led by the President's brother, were also closed down before the elections. Senior clerics identified with the conservatives had exhorted voters to come out in large numbers "to slap America in the face". A leading cleric, Ayatollah Ahmad Janadi, the head of the Guardian Council, said that every vote cast was akin to "firing a bullet into the heart of Bush".

The Bush administration had criticised the conduct of the elections, saying that it was neither fair nor free as the unelected Guardian Council had rejected more than 2,500 mainly liberal candidates, 80 of them sitting legislators. The political leadership and the people, irrespective of their differences, seem to be united in their stance on the United States. U.S. President George W. Bush put Iran in the "axis of evil" three years ago and has been specifically targeting the country ever since.

The Iranian government has been put on the back foot on the nuclear issue. Under incessant Western pressure, the Iranian nuclear installations have been opened to intrusive inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). In the last week of February, the IAEA announced that it had discovered that Iran had produced and experimented with polonium, an element useful in triggering a chain reaction in nuclear reactors. The secretary of the Iranian National Security Council, Hasan Rowhani, was in New Delhi in the last week of February. Rowhani, who is mentioned in some quarters as a possible successor to President Khatami, said that he expected India to support the Iranian position in the standoff with the IAEA and the West.

An Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman said that the American government was from the beginning "not very happy to see the elections, or to see democracy being institutionalised here". Ayatollah Khamenei said that the losers in the elections are the "United States, Israeli Zionists and the country's enemies". The European Union (E.U.), in a statement, described the elections as "a setback to democracy" that could adversely affect diplomatic ties with Iran. An E.U. spokesman said that the elections did not measure up to international standards.

President Khatami talking to journalists after casting his ballot in the parliamentary elections in Teheran on February 20.-DAMIR SAGOLJ/REUTERS

Despite shortcomings, the elections have shown to the world that the Iranian public is aware of its democratic rights and privileges. In recent years, even the authority of the spiritual leader and the concept of velayat-i-faqih (spiritual guide) have been questioned in the media and in the legislature. The literacy rate in the country is more than 90 per cent. Iranians are intensely patriotic. The opinion within Iran is that political squabbles between the conservatives and the reformers will not lead to a permanent schism in the body politic of the country. It is noteworthy that even secular nationalists have rejected offers of outside support. Iranian democracy for most Iranians is a synthesis between Western democratic norms and Islamic values. Political Islam in Iran is a reaction to the long years of foreign domination. Clerics have also played an important role in Iranian politics for the last three centuries. The 1979 revolution allowed them to take centre stage.

To a large extent, the reformists have to shoulder the blame for the reversal. Despite being in control of both the legislature and the executive, they were unable to do anything significant to advance their agenda. They lacked the expertise needed to govern and failed to pass significant legislation. Some of the legislation passed by the lawmakers was torpedoed by the higher, unelected bodies.

Many Iranians, however, feel that the political standoff could have been resolved in favour of the reformists only if Khatami had adopted a more unwavering approach. Instead, he chose to take a legalistic stance, refusing to question the basis of clerical supremacy in Iranian politics. Even during the recent political crisis, Khatami reposed all his trust in the supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, hoping that the latter would prevail upon the Guardian Council to reinstate all the candidates barred from contesting the elections. According to many Iranian analysts, disillusionment with Khatami and the reformists was an important factor that led to widespread public apathy towards the elections.

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