With reformists gone, Iran vote will be family feud

Balance of power between Khamenei and Ahmadinejad is at stake in upcoming parliamentary elections.

March 1, 2012 14:01
Iranian Supreme Leader Khamenei and Ahmadinejad

Iranian Supreme Leader Khamenei and Ahmadinejad 311 (R). (photo credit: Reuters)

Iran’s parliamentary elections on Friday will be a family feud between Islamic conservatives that may determine who is the most powerful leader among them but is unlikely to bring any new ideas from Tehran for tackling the country’s long list of daunting challenges.

Reformist leaders are boycotting the vote and analysts expect that many urban voters, frustrated by the conservative monopoly over politics, will shun the polls.

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As a result, the race has narrowed into a competition between the rival camps of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Sayyed Ali Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, with rural constituencies deciding who wins. The two have been engaged in a bitter power struggle since they worked together to defeat reformists in Iran’s 2009 presidential election.

“These are all people with impeccable conservative credentials, but there are disagreements,” Mehrzad Boroujerdi, professor of political science at Syracuse University, told The Media Line. “What is interesting is that once they got rid of reformists the conservatives began having disagreements among themselves.”

There is no shortage of issues to spar over. Over the last several months, Western powers have tightened their sanctions regime on Iran in a bid to bring a halt to its nuclear program. That has caused the riyal to plummet in value and inflation to skyrocket, prompting families to horde essentials.

The nuclear program itself has been snared by sabotage and the assassinations of scientists, and Israeli hints of a possible attack on nuclear installations have grown more menacing.  The regime in Syria, Iran’s principal ally in the Middle East, is struggling to put down an 11-month-old rebellion and faces international isolation as well.

Yet the two conservative camps dominating the elections have engaged in a surreal campaign that ignores all these issues. Ahmadinejad’s followers have focused on social justice and Khamenei loyalists on Islamic virtue. Ignoring the bitter rivalry between the two leaders, both sides have sought to win voters by presenting themselves as the truest expression of Khamenei’s ideology.

Candidates should avoid “disappointing people with critical debates and campaigning,” Parliamentary Speaker Ali Larijani, a rival of Ahmadinejad, was quoted as saying in local media last week. “The global situation and people’s living conditions have brought about enough hopelessness. Candidates should encourage people to go to the polls by creating hope.”

Anoush Ehteshami, an Iran expert at Britain’s Durham University, said that despite the obfuscation, the two camps do differ on issues and the winner may quietly begin a process of adjusting Iranian foreign policy with the aim of easing the sanctions.

“There are subtle differences on all the major issues. For Larijani’s camp, getting the sanctions lifted is very important because the economy is a very important element on social harmony and stability,” Ehteshami told The Media Line.

Although Iran is conventionally portrayed as a theocratic state, it has traditionally allowed for some competition between political streams inside the Islamic spectrum. That diversity, however, has been increasingly restricted, particularly after 2009 when Ahmadinejad’s re-election was disputed by the reformist opposition, leading to strikes and a wave of killings, arrests and a clampdown on speech.

While 3,444 candidates are vying for 290 seats in Friday’s election, voters’ choices are very limited. More than a third of those who sought to run were rejected by the Council of Guardians, a body of six clerics and six jurists who screen candidates for their Islamic credentials. The number of candidates is the smallest since 1996.

Authorities have cracked down on freedom of expression in the run-up to elections, according to an Amnesty International report released on Monday. A wave of arrests has targeted lawyers, students, journalists, political activists and their relatives, religious and ethnic minorities, filmmakers and people with international connections, particularly to media, it said.

The campaign has turned on new media, which the authorities see as a major threat, the report said.  A recently established Cyber Police requires owners of Internet cafes to install closed-circuit cameras and to register users.

Besides reformists boycotting the vote, two of their leaders, Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, have been under house arrest since February 2011. Ehteshami said that could have fateful results for Iranian politics by pushing the reformists out of electoral politics.

“It will be the first time the pragmatists and moderate reformists have not taken part in elections as a distinct group, and that is important because it could either lead to further cleavages in the system or encourage the emergence of reformists as a force outside the system,” he said.

Nevertheless, Ali Alfoneh, an Iran scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, said the regime may still get the 60% turnout it has been predicting because pork barrel politics brings out rural voters.

“In parliamentary elections people don't vote ideologically, they vote for local candidates whom they know, and whom they believe can send money back to the province from Tehran,” he told The Media Line in an e-mail interview.

The most important outcome of the parliamentary elections may only emerge next year when Iran holds presidential elections. Ahmadinejad is barred by law from seeking a third term, but a strong showing by his camp would enhance his prospects of running an ally in the 2013 race and act as an influential elder statesman.

That will be tough. Ahmadinejad has been saddled with the blame for unpopular cuts in food and fuel subsides at the end of 2010 as well as the deteriorating economy, analysts say. The four parties backing the president got off to a poor start when campaigning began a week ago. Many Ahmadinejad-aligned candidates, including all those running in Tehran, were barred from running.

On the other hand, a clear-cut victory for the Khamenei camp might give the supreme leader the courage to eliminate the office of the presidency altogether, a move that would remove one of the last remaining competing centers of power, said Syracuse’s Boroujerdi.

“If he would do such a thing he would have to pay a lot of political capital. It would be very awkward for a regime that’s called an Islamic Republic to be without a president,” Boroujerdi said. But Khamenei may deem the risk worthwhile. “It is one institution that has given a lot of headaches for the supreme leader.”

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