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Iranian Elections: the Chinese Model Vs. the North Korean Model | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Even those who organize the exercise admit that what they offer is not elections in the normal sense of the term, a view echoed by almost all who participate as candidates.

The reason is that Iranian elections, held every four years for the Islamic Consultative Assembly and, every eight years for the Assembly of Experts, represent a carefully choreographed exercise designed to maintain and consolidate power in the hands of a power elite in the context of what is, in effect, a one-party system.

And, yet, despite their obvious limitations the Iranian elections are of interest for at least two reasons.The first is that, like elections in the former Soviet Union, they provide an instant photo of the balance of power within the regime, indicating the rise or decline of various factions competing for power within the same framework. Secondly, the exercise also offers a glimpse of the broader society’s political mood. A mass turnout of voters could indicate a greater degree of tolerance for the regime while a low turnout would show a degree of lassitude with the charade.

For example, the last election in 2013, in which Hassan Rouhani won the presidency, produced the lowest turnout in the history of the Islamic Republic, indicating disaffection with a system that had been pushed to its limits of absurdity by the outgoing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Thus the first question about the coming elections, slated for 26 February, concerns the turnout.So far, the Ministry of Interior, which is in charge of organizing the elections under the supervision of the Council of Guardians, has provided a set of different numbers. The first figure given last December put the figure of those eligible to vote at 55 million out of a total population of close to 80 million. In January the ministry reduced that figure to 51 million, leading to speculation that the authorities were worried about a low turnout and wished to pretend that fewer people were eligible.

Figures kept secret

Last Tuesday, however, the Deputy Interior Minister Hussein-Ali Amiri injected a new dose of uncertainty by telling a press conference in Tehran that two different authorities were working to establish how many people were eligible and that he couldn’t offer any figures.

The next interesting question regards the number of those applying to stand for election as candidates. This time there was a record number as 12,807 men and women filled in application forms for the Islamic Majlis and 801 for the Assembly of Experts.
In the event, the Council of Guardians that must approve every candidacy rejected 49 per cent of the applicants for the Majlis and almost 80 per cent of those seeking a seat in the Assembly of Experts. In the final count, there will be 21 candidates for every one of the 290 seats of the Majlis. In the Assembly of Experts, every one of the 88 seats will be contested by an average of two candidates. However, some constituencies of the assembly will have only one candidate.

Initially, this year’s elections attracted greater interest because they were cast as a test for US President Barack Obama’s strategy of helping “moderates” capture a bigger share of power in Iran by concocting a “solution” to the problem of sanctions and accepting Tehran’s position on a range of issues including the future of Syria.

The faction Obama had counted on is led by former President Hashemi Rafsanjani and includes former President Muhamad Khatami as well as Rouhani and his entourage known as “The New York Boys.” Part of that scenario, based on American wishful thinking, was for Rafsanjani to promote Hassan Khomeini, a grandson of the late ayatollah, as the next “Supreme Guide” by securing a seat for him in the Assembly of Experts. In the event, Hassan was simply disqualified allegedly because of his insufficient knowledge of Islam and told to keep his mouth shut. A further 41 mullahs, all Prayer Leaders, were also disqualified because of their “lack of sufficient commitment to Islam.”

Who are the candidates?

The rival faction is led by the “Supreme Guide” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei who has controlled most levers of power since the 1990s. Needless to say there are mini-factions within each of the two factions, representing different sensibilities and interests.

So what are the choices available to average Iranian voters? A survey of the approved candidates show they all come from a very narrow stratum of society. Almost all are former or actual employees of the public sector, including the government in one way or another. In the list approved for Tehran which has 30 seats, for example, we found only a handful that could be regarded as ordinary citizens.

In the case of the Islamic Majlis, almost 30 per cent of the approved candidates are mullahs of various statures. That figure rises to 98 per cent in the case of the Assembly of Experts. Former personnel of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard, the Mobilization of the Dispossessed (Baseej Mustadhafin) and the various security services account for a further 20 per cent of the approved candidates for the Islamic Majlis. Another big chunk of candidates, perhaps around 10 per cent, consists of technocrats who have spent virtually the whole of their career in public service.

Thus, all in all, the public sector, which employs 5.5 million people, is grossly over-represented in these elections. Thus, whatever the shape of the two assemblies, one thing is certain: neither will fully represent the broader Iranian society.

The late Ayatollah Khomeini, leader of the sect that bears his name, agreed to some form of elections as a tactic to woo Iranian urban middle classes who, having broken with the Shah, dreamt of a Western-style democratic system.

However, right from the start, Khomeini and his allies, including Stalinists and Islamic-Marxists knew that in a system based on the principle of “Walayat a-Faqih” or “rule by the clergy” there is no room, and no need, for a genuine parliament.

Two important questions

Despite their obvious limitations, this month’s elections will implicitly focus on two important questions regarding the future of the country. The first is that of Khamenei’s succession. Approaching his 80th birthday, Khamenei may well follow Khomeini by living another decade. However, he may also be gone before the next Assembly of Experts’ term ends in 2024.

On occasions, Rafsanjani, who is 82 years old, has evoked the possibility of a collective “walayat al-faqih” composed of three or five mullahs. That, however, has proved a non-starter if only because it would require a major shift of power from the “Supreme Guide” to the Presidency.

Finding a single successor isn’t easy either. The mullahs involved in active politics have all lost much of whatever clerical legitimacy they may have had, becoming politicians dressed as clerics. The elders among them, say Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi or Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati are older than Khamenei and thus unlikely as candidates for his succession. The younger political mullah ones, say Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami or Ayatollah Hussein Alam al-Hoda, are more street fighters than religious scholars.

The genuine ayatollahs, say Muhammad-Jawad Alawi Borujerdi in Qom, are not interested in becoming the “Supreme Guide” because they believe that mullahs should devote themselves to religion rather than politics.In any case, during the past four decades the traditional Shiite clergy have succeeded in marking their distance from the political mullahs, implicitly regrading Khomeinism as a “bed’ah”, if not a full-fledged sect that has broken away from the mainstream.

Khamenei himself has advised his supporters to find and promote “four or five potential Supreme Guides” inside the Assembly of Experts. The advice has resulted in nothing but intensifying personal rivalries among a dozen or so ambitious mullahs who lack any credible constituency outside the regime. The succession question is likely to remain unresolved, a ticking bomb in the heart of the Khomeinist system.

North Korean or Chinese?

The second crucial question regards the economic model that the Islamic Republic should adopt in the wake of the “nuke deal” that has raised hopes of normalization.

One option is offered by the different groups bracketed as the Rafsanjani faction. The faction has always been fascinated by the so-called “Chinse Model” developed by Deng Xiaoping and his successors in the 1980s and 1990s, transforming China from a mainly poor agrarian nation into a major industrial power.

The “Chinse Model” is based on the belief that while importing Western-style democracy is both painful and potentially dangerous for “Third World” nations that live in patriarchal, not to say despotic, systems, adopting capitalism is both relatively easy and highly profitable. Thus the Rafsanjani faction’s slogan is: Yes to capitalism, no to democracy!

This is why Obama’s belief that the Rafsanjani faction consists of “moderate reformists” is naïve, to say the least. Rafsanjani and his hand-picked successor Khatami governed for 16 years, never offering a single reform let alone implementing any. Their successor Rouhani has had more than two years to show that he follows exactly the same path. During his presidency Iran has become world number one in the number of executions and political prisoners with censorship and cultural pressure on creative Iranians intensified.

Nevertheless, the faction’s policy of trying to open Iran to trade, especially with Western powers, could, if really implemented, give the Iranian economy a much needed boost.

The downsizing of the public sector, proposed by Finance Minister Ali Tayyibnia, could release part of the private sector’s energies and provide an opportunity for dealing with mass unemployment. The faction also wants the Islamic Republic to join the World Trade Organization (WTO) and revive the associate-membership deals negotiated under the Shah with the European Union in the 1970s.

Such a model, however, would take Iran back into the global system just as China was woven in during the 1990s. That in turn, would require Iran to abandon its declared ambition of “exporting” Khomeinism, notably to the Middle East.

In other words, the Chinese model would not extend the Iranian people’s freedoms. But it will make the Islamic Republic a less troublesome player in regional and international domains. In the 1960s China was a source of trouble for the global system dominated by the United States and allies. By 1990 it had become a major trading partner for and investor in the US.

The “Chinese Model” is opposed by the “North Koreans of Islam” led by Khamenei whose faction has launched what he has called “Resistance Economy” based on self-sufficiency, minimum trade with the outside world, especially the US and the EU.

Khamenei’s “Resistance Economy (Eqtesad Muqawimah) is directly inspired by the doctrine of “Juche” (self-reliance) developed by the founder of North Korea Kim Il-Sung in the 1960s. The idea is that it is far better to be poor but independent than rich and reliant on others who may use their wealth to dictate to you and force you to change your system of government and way of life.

At the heart of the North Korean option is hatred of the United States. Thus, Khamenei never misses an opportunity to warn against the seductive powers of “The Great Satan” who could lead the Muslim youth astray with its attractive but diabolical culture and way of life.

It was to counter the Rafsanjani faction’s tilt towards the US that Khamenei launched his so-called “Looking East” strategy by inviting Russian President Vladimir Putin to Tehran and, then, sending Special Adviser Ali-Akbar Velayati to Moscow to develop an “irreversible strategic partnership” with Moscow.

Khamenei believes that getting close to the West may improve the living standards of Iranians but could also lead to the weakening of the regime’s hold on power and its ultimate collapse. He thinks the North Korean option is the surest insurance policy for his Islamic Republic. The Chinse option might secure the regime inside Iran but would restrict its freedom of action abroad. This is why after six decades North Korea is still capable of doing whatever its leaders want while, in many fields, China must tread cautiously. Khamenei wants the coming elections as a massive endorsement of his strategy. His rivals hope to limit his expected victory. We shall see what happens.