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Iran’s Leadership on Edge as Parliamentary Elections Near

TEHRAN, Feb 18 2012 (IPS) - While the general public here is anxious about the increasingly harsh sanctions imposed by Western powers on Iran’s financial and oil sectors, the leaders of the Islamic Republic appear more consumed by the upcoming parliamentary elections to be held Mar. 2.

This is despite the fact that these elections will not, in all likelihood, lead to much change in the current make-up of the Parliament, which is dominated by right side of the political spectrum and solid supporters the country’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Various leaders of the Islamic Republic are nevertheless expressing seemingly contradictory worries about election results being challenged, as they were in the 2009 presidential elections, and low turnout.

The first expression of these concerns came from Khamenei himself in a speech in Kermanshah Province in October. In a clear reference to post-election protests in 2009, he identified two primary issues. The first, he said, is “people’s presence, which must be broad and extensive. The second issue is remaining loyal to laws and respect for the people’s vote. It should not be so that if elections turned out the way we want… we accept it; and if the outcome goes against our views, we undermine the law.”

Concerns about post-election protests have also been expressed by Iran’s military leaders. In early January, the commander of Islamic Revolution’s Guard Corps (IRGC), Mohammad-ali Jafari, said, “Enemies intend to revive the sedition current in the wake of the elections for the Ninth Parliament through mayhem and artificial resuscitation and they prepared some plans.” To neutralize these plans, Jafari called for “maximal participation” of the people in the election.

Even the former presidential candidate and IRGC commander, Mohsen Rezaie, said on Feb. 16 that high participation is important for Iran’s “security and prestige”. “Enemies are waiting to increase sanctions and put Iran under pressure in the event of low turnout,” he went on to say.

The emphasis on high participation is a reflection of the reliance on elections as a source of legitimacy for the Islamic Republic. In 1993, when President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani was re-elected, the 51- percent turnout was deemed a reflection of political apathy and became a source of concern.

The rise of reformist parties in the 1990s resolved the participation issue, increasing the turnout by double digits. But it also led to the presence of reformist candidates in both parliamentary and presidential elections who were seen as not sufficiently committed to the ideals of the Islamic Republic.

The post-2009 expulsion of these candidates from the political process and their branding as “seditionists” has renewed concerns about next month’s turnout, particularly in large cities such as Tehran, which is home to some 15 percent of the country’s electorate.

According to Mohammad-reza Bahonar, the conservative deputy speaker of parliament, a recent poll suggests that in Tehran, a mere 18 percent of the electorate plans to vote. It is perhaps for this reason that the judiciary has identified any calls for election boycott as a crime that will be punished.

But many analysts in Iran believe it will be unnecessary for reformist or opposition leaders to call for a boycott. The electorate, particularly in large cities, seems genuinely weary of electoral politics. The banning of major reformist parties, such as the Islamic Iran’s Participation Front and the Islamic Revolution Mojaheddin, and the imprisonment of their leaders have contributed heavily to this mood.

According to one university professor, the widespread feeling is one of people no longer wanting to become an “epic making nation”, in the words of the official propaganda that followed the 2009 presidential election, since they still believe that in the epic they made “their vote was counted for someone they did not vote for”.

Such a mood may lead the authorities to exaggerate the actual turnout next month. Already some hard-line dailies such as Kayhan are predicting a 65 percent or more turnout throughout the country, which would be quite high by historical standards, comparable only to the 1996 and 2000 parliamentary elections in which there was a real sense of competition among a wider selection of candidates.

In the last two parliamentary elections, from which many reformist candidates were excluded, the participation rate throughout the country was 51 percent in 2004 and 57 percent in 2008.

But a low turnout is only one aspect of the official concern. The increasingly acrimonious competition among various groups on the right of the political spectrum, known as Principlists, has also created the potential for election results to be challenged by candidates unhappy with any irregularities in that may take place.

The election season did not start this way. With no significant competition from reformists, representatives of various Principlist organisations vowed to work together to form unified lists of candidates throughout the country, and particularly in Tehran, which, with 30 seats, constitutes the most important district in the country, by far.

But this effort, which was led by Principlist stalwart and chairman of Council of Experts Ayatollah Mahdavi Kani, was unable to reach an agreement. The resulting splits have created two major groups: The United Principlist Front and the Steadfastness Front.

The former group is more of a coalition and includes candidates from both hard-line and more moderate and traditional wings of Principlism. It includes individuals who are close to Tehran’s mayor, Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, as well as the current speaker, Ali Larijani, who is running as one the United Principlist Front’s candidates in the city of Qom.

The Steadfastness Front, on the other hand, consists mostly of hard- line followers of Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi, many of whom served in President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s cabinet. In fact, many observers believe that the Steadfastness Front does not identify itself with Ahmadinejad directly only because of the president’s association with his chief of staff, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaie, who has become persona non grata among Principlists due to his unorthodox and “deviationist” views.

Meanwhile, suspicions abound that Mashaie himself is organising a large number of candidates, and supporting them financially behind the scenes. A large meeting of “President’s Young Advisors” was just held in Tehran involving several thousand participants. But Mashie supporters have yet to release the list of their candidates, leaving their opponents in the dark.

Sadeq Zibakalam, a professor at the University of Tehran, suggested in an interview with the Iran Labor News Agency (ILNA) that such ambiguity is deliberate. “In order to avoid disqualification by the Guardian Council, the (Ahmadienjad) government will not reveal its support of candidates until the last days of the campaign,” he said.

He further believes that the Front’s plans to concentrate their efforts on the last days of the campaign will be particularly effective in smaller cities and rural areas where, according to the latest census data, about 29 percent of Iran’s population resides.

Added to the fear that Ahmadinejad and Mashaei supporters will do well owing to their access to the government’s financial resources is the reality that elections in Iran are conducted by the Interior Ministry. The Guardian Council, in its supervisory capacity, will try to act as a check to this government-controlled ministry. But the intense intra-Principlist competition is keeping the electoral process acrimonious and its results potentially open to challenge.

In the words of Abbas Abdi, a prominent journalist, the naked struggle over the spoils of the state, a common characteristic of most state-controlled oil-based economies, has effectively led to “a rather quick transition to outright political hostility and ugliness among former allies”.

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