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Iran: between regime change and change within the regime - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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Today, some 52 million Iranian eligible voters are invited to vote in an election for the 290-seat Islamic Majlis, the country’s ersatz parliament since the mullahs seized power in 1979.

The question is: should anyone care?

For a number of reasons, the answer may well be: no.

To start with this is really not an election because voters are asked to choose from among pre-selected candidates approved by the regime.

Applicants must meet a long list of conditions. These include tangible ones such as holding a master’s degree, and intangible ones such as “being faithful to Walayat al-Faqih” or rule by a mullah.

But, how many Iranians hold a master’s degree? And, more importantly, how many wish to spend the rest of their lives ruled by a mullah? Whatever the answer, it is clear that the overwhelming majority of Iranians are excluded from candidacy from the start.

Next, because decision-making on major issues is the exclusive prerogative of the “Supreme Guide”, there is little possibility of choosing from among different policies. To be sure, the candidates cannot criticise the “Supreme Guide”. Nor could they offer alternatives to main domestic and foreign policies of the president. More interestingly, they cannot criticise each other either.

The voter is not even able to compare different analyses of the situation. The one-week campaign is not long enough to cover even the major issues.

This is not a real election for two more reasons.

First, the election is not organised and supervised by an impartial body as is the case in most countries where genuine elections are held. The Ministry of Interior could announce whatever results it is asked to do.

Secondly, the so-called Council of the Guardians could cancel the victory of any candidate or, even, all of them.

Some leading Khomeinist figures go further and deny the right of the regime to hold elections.

“This government is illegal and thus has no right to hold elections,” says Muhammad-Reza Khatami a former Deputy-Speaker of the Majlis.

“We cannot accept this election because we do not accept the decisions of the Council of Guardians,” says former Deputy Premier Behzad Nabavi.

Initially, some 4000 people applied to be pre-selected as candidates. The Council of Guardians endorsed 67 per cent of them. In the first days of the campaign, however, over 300 pre-selected candidates dropped out, leaving just over 3000 individuals contesting the 290 seats.

Despite all the above reasons why the exercise might not merit much interest, it would be wrong to dismiss it out of hand.

Despite obvious limitations, today’s elections could offer some indication to the present political mood in the country.

The first thing to look for would be voter turnout. No doubt the regime will massage the figures to claim a massive turnout. Nevertheless, no measure of massaging could fool the people who would see, and thus know, how many actually went to the polls.

This is the first electoral exercise since the fiasco of the presidential election in 2009 that split the Khomeinist establishment. Some analysts claim that Iranians are no longer interested in change within the regime as offered by Mir-Hussein Mussavi. What Iranians now want is regime change, these analysts assert. A low turnout might be an indicator in support of that claim.

Other analysts, however, believe that one or more factions within the regime might be willing and able to break with the despotic mould imposed by the “Supreme Guide” Ali Khamenei. Even a modestly big turnout plus the defeat of the more hardline Khomeinsits might lend some credence to such an analysis.

The daily Kayhan, published by Khamenei, reports opinion polls indicating that voter turnout may rise to 60 per cent in the provinces but remain below 20 per cent in Tehran.

Another indication to the political mood, at least inside the Khomeinist movement, would be the success or failure of the various lists.

Leaving aside some 50 independents that may have a base in their respective constituencies there are 21 lists in the race. With political parties banned, these lists act as substitutes.

Of these lists, only three have put “faith in the Supreme Guide” and/or commitment to “Walayat al-Faqih” in their campaign slogans.

The other lists make no mention of “Walayat al-Faqih”. Instead, they advocate “rationality”, “moderation”, “prosperity” and “ justice” in their slogans.

Although former Presidents Hashemi Rafsanjani and Muhammad Khatami have supposedly boycotted the election, their supporters are present with two lists and over 300 candidates. Only the entourage of Mussavi and former Majlis Speaker Mehdi Karrubi has been totally excluded. Mussavi and Karrubi remain under house arrest and have called for a boycott of the election.

More interesting is the position of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s faction which is emerging as the principal rival of the Khamenei faction within the ruling establishment.

Ahmadinejad has repeatedly claimed that he supports no candidates. And, yet, his supporters are present with several lists and have campaigned for restoring the institutions of the state and giving the government a bigger say in shaping policy.

On Tuesday, Ahmadinejad implicitly predicted victory for his supporters by saying that, with Friday’s elections he “smelled the spring”.

At the other end of the spectrum, General Salar Abnush, a commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) commander, warned that a victory for “ supporters of the deviant tendency” could trigger “a deep crisis” and intervention by the military. Khamenei’s supporters use the label “deviant tendency” to describe the faction led by Ahmadinejad.

In a sense, the back story in this election is the rivalry between Khamenei, who wants Iran to remain a vehicle for the Khomeinist revolution regardless of the cost, and Ahmadinejad who argues that the time has come for Iran to start behaving as a nation-state.