Iranians are invited to go to the polls today to elect the next Islamic Consultative Assembly, the ersatz parliament set up by Ayatollah Khomeini in 1980.
At stake are 290 seats contested by almost 3000 candidates. (The exact number is unclear because almost 1100 out of 4470 ‘approved candidates’ withdrew at the last minute.)
The most hotly discussed topic, however, is the size of the turnout.
A raft of political groupings, from monarchists to socialists, and passing by liberals and nationalists, has called for the boycott of an exercise they describe as “fraudulent”.
The boycott call has found an echo with sections of the “loyal opposition” inside the Khomeinist establishment.
It resonates with many Iranians disillusioned with the failure of the Majlis to act as an effective interface between the people and those in power.
A number of events have strengthened the feeling that the Majlis has lost what little legitimacy it might have once had.
To start with, the electoral exercise has been put under the control of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) with one of its commanders running the show as Deputy Minister of Interior. The IRGC is treating the election as a military operation rather than a political process.
The Islamic Republic is probably the only country where elections are held under exclusive government control. There is no independent electoral commission and no observers appointed by candidates. Since political parties are banned, there is also no pluralist monitoring system. Nor are there any foreign observers.
To limit the choice, candidates are vetted by security services and the IRGC. The final list is established by the Council of the Custodians of the Constitution, an appointed organ of the state. Finally, the “Supreme Guide” could always include or exclude anyone from the list with a nod.
The publication of the final list, from which all suspected critics of the regime are excluded, does not signal the start of a genuine campaign. Campaigning is limited to two weeks, not enough for most candidates to achieve name-recognition, let alone win support for their programme.
This obliges candidates to enter the foray as part of lists endorsed by various electoral blocs. That, in turn, makes “fixing” the results easier, especially in multi-member constituencies such as Tehran. (The IRGC could fill ballot boxes with lists of its favoured candidates.)
Campaigning in an Iranian election is not the same as in elections in democratic countries.
Candidates are not allowed to criticise rivals, personally or politically. Nor are they allowed to attack the government or senior officials.
The slightest disparaging remark about the “Supreme Guide” could mean instant disqualification.
Criticism of the system is not allowed either.
Speaking a week before the poll, “Supreme Guide” Ali Khamenehi told candidates not to forget that the Majlis was “part of the system, not a platform from which to act against it.”
The question is who decides what “acting against the system” means.
There are no debates among the candidates while the state-owned media have no obligation to provide equal time for contestants.
Even when the polling in two rounds is over, the winners cannot be sure of entering the Majlis. The final list of victors must be approved by the Council of the Custodians of the Constitution and the “Supreme Guide”.
Many might wonder what is the point of the exercise?
The point is that elections enable the ruling establishment to sort out its internal rivalries without bloodshed, something current in many so-called “developing nations.”
Today’s election is the eighth since the mullahs seized power in 1979.
In the first two elections, the mullahs purged the Marxist-Islamist and Communist elements. Then it was the turn of self-styled “religious nationalists” to be purged in the subsequent election. The fourth to sixth elections helped alternate power between two wings of the same group of Khomeinist mullahs who had carried out the purges.
The seventh election marked the massive entry of elements from the IRGC into the Majlis. For the first time, the number of individuals with IRGC backgrounds exceeded that of mullahs.
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s election as President of the Islamic Republic confirmed the IRGC’s new position as the backbone of the Khomeinist system.
The current election is interesting because it is the first in which rival groups from the IRGC are fighting over a bigger share of power with the mullahs playing second fiddle. In a sense, the election looks like a primary held by the IRGC to allocate Majlis seats among its members and allies within the clergy.
The way things are shaping up, a coalition of three “blocs” led by retired IRGC officers may win the largest number of seats with the blessing of the “Supreme Guide” who is reportedly unhappy about Ahmadinejad’s attempts at building a distinct popular base for himself.
With a Majlis hostile to Ahmadinejad, the “Supreme Guide” would have a better chance of clipping the wings of the ebullient president without provoking a direct confrontation.
But the price that Khamenehi may have to pay is a further extension of the IRGC’s power and a corresponding retreat by the mullahs.
Ahmadinejad, representing the most radical wing of the establishment, is sincere in his belief that he could drive the United States out of the Middle East and give the Khomeinist revolution a new momentum towards its goal of “global victory.”
His principal adversaries are mostly men who, having made immense fortunes, are more interested in preserving the system than risking its survival with a strategy of permanent revolution.
Ahmadinejad behaves as if he has nothing to lose.
The election may bring him face to face with men who have something to lose and are anxious to avoid loss.
A new Majlis controlled by “moneybags” will not transform the Khomeinist wolf into lamb. The Islamic Republic would remain a threat to the Iranian people and their neighbours, if only because the ruling establishment is unable to shed its dangerous illusions.
Nevertheless, a low turnout indicating popular discontent could weaken Ahmadinejad’s position by indicating lack of support for his radical strategy. More importantly, a victory for the anti-Ahmadinejad bloc of IRGC officers and IRGC-backed mullahs could provide the president’s “brake-less and clutch-less train” with some urgently needed restraining mechanism. This is why the election, the second round of which will be held later this month, must not be dismissed as wholly irrelevant.