Although largely ignored outside Iran so far, the local elections will provide a more organic configuration of the Iranian electorate when compared to the politically more important presidential one.
Legislation to enforce city council elections came into force during President Khatami’s era as part of his agenda to strengthen civil society and enhance socio-political participation at the local level. The first round of these elections, held in 1999, achieved reasonable turnout for both the reformist and conservative camps.
The fortune of reformists had changed by 2003. Although they were still holding the executive and legislative branches of power, they lost substantially to a newly emerging “principalist” coalition backed by the conservative camp. The reformists’ inability to push their reform agenda was a cause for widespread apathy towards political participation among their main voting base: the urban middle class, women and university students.
The new principalist coalition swiftly filled the vacuum and managed to retake a majority seats of the 25-strong Tehran City Council from reformists, with only 12% of the electorate participating in February 2003. Reformists were beaten in an election conducted by their administration and witnessed a drastic swing in voting results given the large abstention by and apathy towards their main constituencies.
The most remarkable result of the 2003 local election took place in the Tehran constituency, where many non-reformists did manage to get elected. The newly formed faction that made quite an impact in the 2005 presidential election was the Abad-garaan (Coalition of Builders). The Abad-garaan coalition appointed Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as Tehran’s mayor and brought him into the political spotlight. This paved the way for his controversial election as president two years later.
While the local elections have gone largely unnoticed even in the Iranian media, a planned gathering of 100,000 people that has been organized by Ahmadinejad’s close aides has been dominating the news over the last few days.
The event is due to be held on Thursday, April 18, at Azadi Stadium to celebrate the efforts made by all organisations and individuals involved in assisting and facilitating the Nowruz (Iranian new year) holidays, during which many Iranians traveled within Iran. The organiser is Iran’s Cultural Heritage Organisation, a key department in Rahim Mashaei’s campaign.
A prominent clergyman, Ayatollah Naser Makarem Shirazi, is reported to have mocked the event, describing it as “laughable” and as a trick to pursue campaign promotion. He called on officials to show “honesty in declaring its main purpose.”
In a rare comment, Superintendent Ahmadi-Moghaddam, Iran’s chief of police who is also close to Ahmadinejad, criticised the plans to hold the government-sponsored event. He has vowed to provide security if it goes ahead.
Iranian authorities are concerned over possible anti-gathering protests by some supporters of the conservative camp, who resent Rahim Mashaei and call his thinking and campaign a deviation from the Islamic Republic’s true narrative and ideology.
The size and timing of this event is quite significant. There is little doubt that it will serve as giant electoral stage and photo-op for Ahmadinejad’s favourite candidate, Rahim Mashaei.
There is serious unease among allies of Ayatollah Khamenei and other sectors of the state, including the judiciary, imams who lead the Friday prayers, and some top officials in the IRGC. They have publicly disapproved of such activities and of the expenditure of public money for political purposes.
Azadi Stadium has seen many sporting events and athletic competitions since it opened in 1974, but very few political rallies have been held there. This Thursday, the venue is set for a big game for Ahmadinejad and his allies.