by Farideh Farhi
Less than four weeks away from the February 26 elections for Iran’s parliament, the details of how many registrants will be allowed to run is not yet clear. This was not unexpected. As I suggested in my previous post, the unprecedented rate of disqualifications by the provincial supervisory committees was bound to unleash a flurry of consultations with the Guardian Council to reverse some of the decisions made at the lower levels.
After meetings between the Guardian Council representative and the 50 disqualified members of the current parliament, reportedly at least seven of the latter were successfully qualified. Although not yet officially confirmed, the qualified include reformist Kamaleddin Pir-moazzen as well as Ali Mottahari, a maverick conservative who has been highly critical of the country’s security establishment and treatment of opposition leaders. Even reformists have reported meetings with members of the Guardian Council and have forwarded a list of 208 registrants with no problematic background to the first vice president, Ishaq Jahangiri.
President Hassan Rouhani has assigned the first VP to follow up on the matter of disqualifications since apparently the majority of registrants who identify themselves as independent or moderate/centrist have also been disqualified. According to Mohsen Rahami, the chair of a working group lobbying for the qualifications of more reformist registrants, the list given to Jahnagiri will be passed on to Rouhani who will then take it to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
Meanwhile, political forces identifying themselves as either principlists or reformists are working hard to pick their candidates in smaller precincts and create candidate lists in the large cities that include the already-qualified candidates. In selecting their candidates and creating candidate lists, the opposing political camps face different challenges.
Dissension among the Ranks
The conservative and hardline forces that have been working together under the aegis of the Council of Principlist Coalition are ironically struggling to choose among too many contenders in their disparate ranks. The spokesman for the Council of Principlist Coalition, Gholam-Ali Haddad Adel, said last week that principlist forces—ranging from traditional conservative organizations, such as Islamic Coalition Party and Association of Combatant Clergy, to the hardline Steadfastness Front—are about to agree on a nationwide list of candidates. Also included in these discussions are supporters of prominent conservative politicians such as Tehran mayor Mohammad-Baqer Qalibaf.
But last Thursday’s principlist confab, held in a half-full stadium in Tehran, suggests that this statement may be too optimistic. Members of the Steadfastness Front did not show up presumably because either they are unhappy with the possibility that some of their most well-known candidates will be left off the joint principlist lists in big cities or they are playing hard-to-get in order to have more say regarding who will be on the lists.
The hardest list on which to create consensus is Tehran with 30 seats. Haddad Adel has stated that so far there is agreement on 80 percent of the list. What he did not say is that the last 20 percent always causes trouble for principlist unity. The Steadfastness Front probably wants its most prominent members, who also happen to be the loudest and most well-known members of the current parliament, on the Tehran list. The rest of the principlist crew, meanwhile, wants precisely the same members off the unified list out of fear that their presence will mark the whole list as hardliners and doom the election of every list member.
At this point, if a unified list is finally agreed upon, the challenge for the principlists will be to convince candidates who did not make the list to withdraw and forgo joining an alternate list, which they did in the 2012 parliamentary elections. The principlist split in 2012 caused most of their Tehran candidates to fall short of the minimum 25 percent of the total vote needed to get elected in the first round even though they faced no competition from the other side of the political spectrum.
Meanwhile, the members of the Reformist Policymaking Council face the opposite problem of too few candidates. They are hence tying to figure out whom they can support outside their own ranks in case their lobbying for more qualifications totally fails. Their problem is the higher-than-usual disqualifications of even the centrist candidates they could support in the same way they supported the centrist Hassan Rouhani in the 2013 presidential election. No matter what happens, they have said that they will try to bring as many people to the voting booth (“maximal participation”) in order to prevent the election of hardliners close to the Steadfastness Front and the security establishment. Their campaign slogan of “Hope and Tranquility” is intended to remind voters of the high and destabilizing costs of what they call “extremism” in both foreign and domestic policy. In the midst of all the jockeying for political positions, they have said very little about what kind of policies, particularly in the socioeconomic arena, they will propose or pursue. The addition of “economic prosperity” to their previous slogan this week is still devoid of any policy content.
The spiritual leader of the Steadfastness Front, Ayatollah Mohammad-Taqi Mesbah Yazdi, on the other hand, has asked supporters to focus on making sure that no reformist is elected. But beyond some vague message about improving the economy, the Steadfastness Front and the principlists in general have yet to come up with a positive slogan. Their constant refrain is preventing foreign infiltration of the next parliament. In the words of this week’s Tehran Friday prayer leader, Kazem Sediqi, the paramount task is to prevent the election of those “who make the enemy’s heart happy.”
Others have begun to challenge the path taken by Rouhani in opening Iran’s economy to foreign trade, imports, and investment. On Saturday, the authorities forcibly arrested 38 individuals identified as student basij who were protesting without a permit. They had gathered in front of the oil ministry to demonstrate against new petroleum contracts the government has proposed to make foreign investment in the country’s oil and gas sector more appealing.
Speaker Ali Larijani nipped in the bud an attempt to criticize the treatment of the students in the parliament. But these challenges already give a hint regarding a potential arena of contestation even after the parliamentary election. Clearly, if a more Rouhani-aligned parliament is not voted in, more parliamentary challenges to the president’s attempt to further liberalize and globalize Iran’s economy should be expected. A parliament in line with Rouhani’s agenda, in turn, will deprive those opposed to his economic policies of a significant institutional arena. These arguments will by no means disappear but will have fewer formal opportunities to be articulated. As such, the protest in front of the oil ministry and the harsh police response may also be a sign of things to come.
Assembly of Experts
The situation with the Assembly of Experts’ election has been a bit different since the Guardian Council is the sole body dealing with the qualification process. In addition, the time frame has given urgency to finishing the task. The final number of qualified candidates has to be decided one week earlier than the list of candidates for the parliament since the legal campaign time for the Assembly of Experts is two weeks as opposed to one week for the parliament.
In fact, the Guardian Council has already issued its verdict by qualifying only 166 people out of 801 registered. No woman was qualified, but one non-cleric who also happens to be a member of the Guardian Council was approved. In the three-day objection period, 80 registrants have challenged their disqualification. So there is a possibility of more qualifications in the next 10 days especially since in six out of a total 31 provinces the number of approved candidates matches the number of seats, guaranteeing a win for the approved. In eight others, the approved have well over 50 percent chance of winning.
Several clerics with outstanding religious pedigree have been disqualified. This number includes Ayatollah Seyed Mohammad Mussavi Bojnurdi whom no less than the founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, appointed to establish the High Council of Judges. He then served for eight years as a member of the High Judicial Council. Few doubt that that his closeness to reformist president Mohammad Khatami is the reason for his disqualification.
Without a doubt, however, the most famous disqualified cleric is Khomeini’s grandson, Hassan Khomeini. It took the grandson a couple of days to respond, but he eventually issued a public letter stating that he will challenge his disqualification despite the fact that he foresees no reversal. The public letter was carefully crafted to put the Guardian Council on the spot for abandoning the tradition of accepting sufficient religious training by sources of religious emulation as a sufficient qualification.
Khomeini is probably right. The Guardian Council will not likely be moved by this charge of disrespect for sources of emulation. Nevertheless, a blow coming from no less than a Khomeini has further harmed the Council’s standing in society. Public commentary regarding the politicized conduct of the Guardian Council has become so widespread that last week the hardline Javan newspaper felt compelled to defend the Council’s secretary, Ahmad Jannati, calling him a the most ill-treated person alive in the face of all the ridicule and jokes made about him.
Beyond ridicule, Jannati may soon face another blow as he is one of the 36 qualified candidates running for 16 Expediency Council seats in the city of Tehran. The reformists and centrists, if they get their act together, will create a list of 16, headed by former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and current president Rouhani, both of whom have been qualified. A higher-than-usual voter turnout for the Assembly election—made possible by its coincidence with the parliamentary election—may then end with candidates excluded from the Hashemi Rafsanjani-led list (as Jannati will probably be) on the losing side.
And what irony that would be if the chief disqualifier ends up being booted out by popular vote! Chances of this are slim but still worth a thought. Stay tuned…
Photo: Hassan Khomeini voting in 2013