Asia-Pacific, Headlines, Human Rights

Iran Prepares for Parliamentary Elections amid Uncertainty

Yasaman Baji

TEHRAN, Sep 11 2011 (IPS) - Uncertainty and confusion, particularly among the highly factionalised conservatives that have dominated Iranian politics since 2005, appear to be the order of the day some seven months before next March’s parliamentary elections.

Given the harsh repression that followed the contested June 2009 presidential elections, including the arrest and confinement of their top leaders, reformists are not expected to be contenders.

But intense competition among different wings of forces claiming absolute loyalty to the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei, has created a muddled political environment, making it difficult to speculate about the direction of the country after the term of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad expires in 2013.

The March elections to the Majlis could be a bellwether. In the past, parliamentary elections held right before the president’s second term is over have been significant in hinting the future direction the country under the next president.

Today, increasingly acrimonious competition among devoted supporters of the Islamic Republic, known as Principlists, has the country wondering about whether there are plans to continue the country’s hard-line direction without Ahmadinejad or whether instead the more- moderate conservative elements within the Principlist camp will take the reins and steer the country in a more centrist direction.

Conflict with the Principlist camp is nothing new. Its wings include moderate or pragmatic conservatives with ties to former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani; traditional conservatives most prominently represented by the bazaar-affiliated Islamic Coalition Party; and hardliners who have controlled the executive branch under Ahmadinejad.

With the reformists now marginalised, the divisions among the Principlist forces have moved to centre stage. Concerted attempts to unify them under the leadership of two Principlist icons – Ayatollah Mohammadreza Mahdavi Kani and Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi – have so far failed.

Kani, a stalwart conservative and the current chair of the Council of Experts, along with Yazdi, the former judiciary chief and current member of the Guardian Council, have convened a committee established to put together a united list of candidates for all Principlist tendencies throughout the country.

While the committee brings together representatives from major Principlist organisations, it also includes representatives from two prominent politicians – Parliament Speaker Larijani and Tehran Mayor Qalibaf – who are expected to seek the presidency in 2013.

The inclusion of their representatives, however, has become a major point of contention for hard-line Principlists who have recently created a new organisation called Jebheye Paydari, or Steadfast Front. This organisation consists mainly of former Ahmadinejad cabinet ministers and a number of hard-line parliamentary deputies who publicly distanced themselves from him after his chief of staff, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, was accused by a number of well-known principlists, some very close to the supreme leader, of “deviation” from the Islamic Revolution earlier this year.

Nonetheless, they essentially maintain Ahmadinejad’s hard-line point of view in domestic and foreign policy.

The Steadfast Front has issued demands, including the removal of the Larijani and Qalibaf representatives, as a condition for their joining the committee. The fact that none of the demands has been accepted has unleashed an acrimonious war of words.

Writing in his blog early last month, Hamid Rasai, a hard-line MP and member of the Steadfast Front, accused Mohammadreza Bahonar, the deputy speaker of the Parliament and a traditional conservative, of supporting former President Mir Hossein Mussavi, the top vote-getting reformist leader who is now under house arrest, in the 2009 election. Bahonar, he charged, was “even willing to take part in Mussavi’s election video”.

And in an interview with Farsnews on Aug. 24, Sattar Hedayatkhah, another hard-line MP, warned darkly about the more moderate conservatives: “We certainly have other discussions and documents regarding the performance of some of these gentlemen during the period of sedition which people are very interested in.”

The reference was to Bahonar and Larijani. Indeed, many hardliners have charged that Larijani had actually congratulated Mussavi for winning the election before the official results declared Ahmadinejad the victor.

The hardliners now insist on excluding not only reformers from all levers of power but also those “failed elite” who did not sufficiently condemn the “sedition” that allegedly propelled the post-election protests.

Bahonar, on the other hand, in an interview published in the reformist daily Roozegar just before it was shut down Aug. 5, accused the “extremists” of wanting “to wipe out Mussavi supporters from the pages of time”.

Other conservatives have publicly accused the Steadfast Front of a hidden agenda; that is, pretending to be critical of Ahmadinejad and his chief of staff, Mashaei, while in reality they will be using the financial resources in control of the executive branch to get elected.

Some go even further in private and say that the Steadfast Front should no longer be considered a wing of Principlism. “They merely use the Principlist title to avoid being accused of deviation the way open Ahmadinejad supporters are these days,” one conservative politician told IPS recently.

In reality, for conservatives the issue is not so much whether the Steadfast Front is supported by Ahmadinejad and his chief of staff Mashaei, but rather whether it is being secretly backed by the Supreme Leader’s Office which intends to use it as a platform for the rise of another relatively unknown politician in the same way it was done with Ahmadinejad in 2005.

If so, then the more moderate conservatives could find themselves with a very weak hand against the hard-liners because of their own loss of popularity and influence with the electorate.

One political analyst who asked not to be identified argued that the conservatives have lost credibility in society because of their absolute support for the hard-line trends in the country over the past eight years.

“The conservatives understand that the loss of their political credibility is due to their official and tactical unity with the Leader on every issue after Khatami’s election in 1997,” he said. “In order to keep the Leader happy and remain in power they eventually even had to celebrate the gradual elimination of Hashemi Rafsanjani and criticise him.”

This university professor considers this “underhanded complicity” with the leader to be the conservatives’ biggest “strategic mistake”.

“These flatteries did not augment their share of power,” he said, “but it did increase their distance from the society, which in turn further reduced their bargaining leverage within the power structure. They ended up being merely a card to be used by Khamenei in his conflicts with his disobedient president.”

It is perhaps for this reason that some conservatives, such as MP Hamidreza Katouzian, are warning against the “premature death of Principlism”. In effect, conservative support of the government’s repressive approach to post-election protests has overshadowed the internal transformations that were occurring within their ranks which allowed the rise of a new generation, such as Qalibaf, that could gain the confidence of the public at large.

Caught between a society that does not trust the government and their own hard-line wing that wishes to monopolise power, conservatives may end up being completely eliminated from power despite their longstanding revolutionary lineage.

The upcoming parliamentary elections will be a crucial one for them. A conservative who supported Mussavi in the 2009 election believes that the decline in Khamenei’s legitimacy and popularity could strengthen the conservatives’ case for a more significant share of power.

“If the conservatives do not or cannot exercise this option,” in the professor’s view, “the only alternative before them is their elimination from the political arena and surrender of all power to hardliners.”

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