Elections in Iran Reveal Crisis of Islamic Republic


On Feb. 18, about 70 percent of the eligible voters, 27 million Iranians 16 years of age or older, gave a loose coalition of organizations and individuals that promised political reforms of the government a decisive majority in the sixth Islamic Consultative Council (parliament).

The parliament is a “consultative” body in the sense that its decisions are subject to veto by the Council of Guardians and by the Vally-e Faghih (the supreme religious leader), neither of whom is elected by voters or accountable to them.

These elections, like all others under the Islamic Republic rule, are fundamentally undemocratic for a variety of reasons, including the fact that only candidates deemed “Islamic” by the Council of Guardians are allowed to run. No secular parties are allowed to function in Iran. Even most candidates of a small loyal liberal Islamic opposition group, the Freedom Movement of Iran, were not allowed to run in the elections.

Overall some 6000 candidates applied to run for 290 seats and some 800 were disqualified. Thus the elections were framed as a contest between two broadly defined camps within the Islamic Republic regime: “conservatives” and “reformists.”

Since Khomeini consolidated his rule, the predominant group has favored unquestioned subordination of the state and society to the religious hierarchy, especially the person of the Vally-e Faghih. However, this position has become increasing untenable, as a cleavage has developed between the requirements of capitalist accumulation and the clerical rule that was used to suppress the mass movement that in 1979 brought down the Washington-installed dictatorial regime of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.

Because of the historical weakness of the Iranian bourgeoisie and the lack of a working-class alternative-and in the face of a crisis of legitimacy of the Islamic Republic and rising demand for individual and democratic rights by the broad masses, especially the youth and women-a “reformist” current has crystallized around Mohammad Khatami, who was swept to presidency two and half years ago.

As Hossein Valleh, the chief political advisor to President Khatami explained to Susan Sachs of The New York Times, the reformists take their “distance from revolutionary totalitarianism and lawless order.” They aim to control extra-legal institutions, including the moral police, cleric court, and the semi-fascist groups called Ansar-e Hezbollah. Many Iranians, both ordinary citizens and political opponents of the regime, even liberal clerics themselves, have been victims of these groups.

The reformists do not intend to challenge the Islamic Republic but to save it by adapting its institutions to the requirement of bourgeois society, where the reformists believe the future of the country belongs. “The Islamic Republic will remain, but its content will change broadly,” Valleh emphasized.

The “Coalition of the Imam and Leader’s Line” (a reference to Khomeini and Khamenei), representing conservative groups who control the ideological and oppressive apparatus of the regime and wield veto power over policy, had become so isolated that it failed to mount a serious election campaign. Its various component organizations adopted election names to portray them as nationalists or liberals. Many of their candidates outside of Tehran preferred to register as “independents.”

The bulk of the conservative incumbents failed to get re-elected, and those involved in political lynching of their reformist opponents particularly did poorly. Hashemi Rafsanjani, one of the most influential leaders of the Islamic Republic, a former speaker of the parliament, and a two-term president, was the only non-reformist candidate elected from Tehran-with only 25.6 percent of the vote. A 25 percent minimum vote is necessary to get elected.

Only two months earlier, Rafsanjani was considered as a potential compromise candidate for the speaker of the parliament. And the conservatives and one group of reformers had actually endorsed his candidacy. However, in recent weeks he had begun to attack the left flank of the reformist coalition and became the object of students scorn.

The vote for reform candidates was a protest vote against those closely aligned with the repressive policies of the regime. It was also a vote to reward those who are perceived to stand up to such policies. The top three vote-catchers in Tehran were Mohammad Reza Khatami, the president’s brother; Jamileh Kadivar, whose brother is an imprisoned reformist cleric; and whose husband, Ayatollah Mohajerani, is the embattled Minister of Culture; and Alireza Nouri, whose brother was the likely candidate for the speaker of the parliament before he was jailed last fall on charges of heresy.

The reformists received a majority of the vote in the urban and rural areas, in religious centers, and across social classes and groups. The new assembly will have far fewer clerics and will be 15 to 20 years younger in age. Of the 290-seat parliament, reformers won 170 seats, fundamentalists 45, and independents 10. Sixty-five seats will be decided in the April run-off.

While the elections did not decide the course of the class struggle in Iran, they did register the desire of the broad masses for democratic reforms and government accountability.

The result of the elections has increased popular expectations. After the results of the elections became known, Ayatollah Khamenei, the Supreme Leader, issued a pardon for two students who were tried and jailed for writing a play that was deemed as insulting to Islam. Thousands of other political prisoners, including an unknown number of student protesters arrested last July, remain behind bars.

The reformist leadership is keenly aware of the rising expectations and has already begun playing down what they can deliver. Mohammad Reza Khatami, the leader of the Islamic Iran Participation Front-which received the largest number of seats of any party-promised that their first legislative act would be to legalize the use of satellite dishes.

But Iranian working people face more important problems. Since the revolution of 1979, per capita income has dropped by 50 percent, income inequality has widened after a brief period when it narrowed, investment per worker has dropped, and official inflation and unemployment stands at 20 percent.

No candidate in the elections addressed these issues. But these issues affected the election results. The conservative incumbents who made good on their promise to improve the livelihood of their constituencies were re-elected. However, the Islamic Republic has proven itself incapable of dealing with the underlying causes for the current crisis. Iranian working people have and will use the openings offered by the crisis of the Islamic Republic to voice their concerns and act in their own behalf.

Western capitals greeted the victory for the reformists. Like their capitalist counterparts in Iran, they favor a political environment that is more conducive to trade and investment. The Clinton administration continues to hope for an opening for U.S. economic interests in Iran, while holding on to its arrogant stand of dictating its policies to Tehran.

In recent days, the U.S. Congress has raised additional barriers to trade involving technologies that can be potentially used in a weapons program, and the United States has used its influence in the World Bank to deny a loan to Iran.

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