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Iran: A new balance of forces
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With the extremist hardliners failing to secure a majority in Iranian parliamentary elections, we could see a change in the balance of forces, Kamal Nazer Yasin writes for ISN Security Watch

The hard-line faction associated with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has failed to secure a majority in the next parliament, a phenomenon which will have far-reaching consequences. The new entrants may form a working majority on an ad hoc basis against the Iranian president.

Despite some rigid constraints, the Iranian parliament is invested with enormous constitutional powers.
It can veto bills introduced by the government, impeach the president or his ministers, enact new laws and call for national mobilization in the event of war.

The parliament also can have a major impact on the allocations to the national budget and make corrections to vital policy decisions, in addition to being an important mechanism by which various factions can vie and compete for furthering their power and their influence. In particular, dominance of the parliament - by way of local patronage networks - can translate into significant influence over presidential elections.

Among the things that the next parliament can and may conceivably ratify, for example, is ending Iran's membership in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) or, alternatively, signing new nuclear agreements like the Additional Protocols requested by the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

The parliament could question Ahmadinejad's confrontational posturings or could demand more; and it can act as a rubber stamp for the government or oppose its socio-economic policies.

All of this is, of course, inextricably dependent on what make-up the next parliament will take.

A sophisticated machinery

Remarkably, competition for this year's legislative election, held on 14 March, got underway as early as last May. Spearheaded by pro-government forces, a major pre-electoral effort was undertaken to streamline differences among various rightist forces and to come up with a unified list for the election. But the major effort was focused on eliminating chances of a victory at the polls by rival reformists.

In the last decade, the conservatives in Iran have created a highly sophisticated and efficient machinery for winning elections. This year was no exception.

A reported 16,500 individuals were mobilized by the Guardian Council and the Interior Ministry to vet and winnow out undesirable candidates long before the campaign season officially kicked off. On election day, over 310,000 election workers, all politically sympathetic to the conservative forces, were mobilized (that's aside from hundreds of thousands of security forces deployed near or at the polling stations) to officiate balloting and provide electoral oversight.

Predictably, the cards were heavily stacked against the reformist and independent candidates from the beginning. Nearly 90 percent ended up being disqualified through the first filtering mechanism. Upon appealing, a few hundred second- or third-tier names were later reinstated, but virtually all top drawer names remained disqualified by the Guardian Council.

Aside from eliminating competition from serious contenders, the disqualifications had the dual aim of dissuading approved candidates from participating in skewed elections and to cause revulsion and boycott among pro-reformist voters.

Next, it was the turn of the nationwide radio and TV networks to start a media blitz against reformists and in favor of conservative candidates - particularly the pro-government forces.

Mysteriously, government jamming of foreign-based broadcasts by opposition groups as well as the popular Persian-language Voice of America - all of whom had been calling for a boycott of the elections - came to a stop in the days leading up to the election.

It is well-documented that a low turnout always benefits the conservatives, since those boycotting, although constituting as much as half the population, are overwhelmingly against the status quo, while the hard-liners' supporters, although constituting less than a quarter of the population, never fail to show up at the voting booths.

The election day was, for the same reason, chosen less than a week before the Persian New Year celebrations, when most people would much rather go shopping than vote.

Finally, the conservative-dominated parliament passed a bill recently which increased the voting age from 15 to 18 with the full knowledge that the vast majority of individuals in that age bracket customarily vote for candidates who stand for "change."

However, this subtle strategy to discourage the large bloc of potential reformist supporters from voting does not risk bringing the official turnout figures to very low levels. That is so because, for one thing, in the provinces and smaller cities - which together make up around three quarters of the electorate - the majority always go to voting polls thanks to ethnic, tribal and familial considerations.

Another mechanism for maintaining the turnout numbers at reasonably high levels is a time-honored technique practiced in many Third World countries: manipulating the numbers.

For example, in this election the government announced a 40 percent turnout for the capital, meaning around two and a half million votes cast. Here, the government is using a much lower figure for eligible voters (more than one million less) than is warranted. As well-known political scientist Sadegh Ziba Kalam has demonstrated, adding the total number of top vote-getters for all the electoral lists gets us less than 1.4 million. The actual turnout in Tehran is therefore 27 percent to 29 percent, not 40 percent.

Under these circumstances, the government does not need to resort to outright vote-tampering, although it is relatively easy for it to do so should the need arise.

For instance, in the early hours of 14 March voting, as several precincts in Tehran displayed a strong showing by the reform candidates, according to eyewitnesses, panic set in at the voting stations. Apparently the oversight committees and election officials had become worried that a reprise of the 1997 presidential vote in which Mohammad Khatami won the election might be in the offing. The election officials ordered all the representatives from the reformist side evicted from the voting stations as a precaution.

The final results

Despite massive disqualifications and the absence of high-profile candidates - as well as very unfavorable campaign conditions such as a boycott by apathetic voters - the final results for both reformist and independent groups were better than expected.

Of the nearly 120 seats - out of a total of 290 seats contested - which the reformists were allowed to run, they were able to obtain 32 seats in the first round of voting, while independents obtained 51 seats.

The two may be able to add another two dozen in the runoffs scheduled for early May. In Tehran, which is a bellwether for the country, Majid Ansari, the top reformist candidate allied with Khatami, received twice the number of votes his predecessor had achieved four years ago – 346,000 compared with 173,000.

Very interesting developments of quite a different sort occurred in the conservative camp. Here, despite massive help from many official and unofficial channels, the mostly pro-government list, which campaigned under the umbrella of the United Principlist Front (UPF), obtained 83 seats in the first round. The moderate conservatives, running under the list of the Comprehensive Principlist Front (CPF), obtained another 79 seats. Ten seats went to religious minorities.

This is a dismal showing for the UPF candidates. At a minimum, they were aiming for the capture of half the total seats. Most observers considered this essential for the consolidation of the gains made by the Ahmadinejad faction as well as facilitating his re-election in the 2009 election.

The pro-government forces had in fact gone out of their way to bring that about. Aside from mass mobilization of followers and resources, state institutions had also come to their rescue.

For instance, in Tehran, the Guardian Council in conjunction with the hard-line Interior Ministry annulled 170,000 votes. It next proceeded to select those deemed eligible to enter the parliament without a runoff based on the lower voter participation; causing 19 instead of 11 UPF candidates in Tehran to make it to the parliament in the first round of voting.

New ambitious entrants

One of the more interesting developments to emerge this election season is the advent of a brand new conservative strand within the New Right movement.

Referred to varyingly as "Pragmatic Conservatism," "Progressive Principalism" or "New Technocracy," the new faction is coalescing around three former Revolutionary Guards commanders: former nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani, former Guards chief Mohsen Rezai and present Tehran mayor Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf.

The difference between the new and the old technocracy - the latter clustering around former president Hashemi Rafsanjani who is now increasingly associated with the reformist camp - is that the cadres and leaders of the New Technocracy all hail from the Guards.

Moreover, their stated disparagement of western individualism and liberalism coupled with their organic ties with Qum - that is, the traditional clergy - makes their status unassailable in the eyes of the young militants and pious fundamentalists alike.

As for their differences with the neo-conservative Ahmadinejad faction, they do not intend to usher in a new Islamic revolution in Iran, whether through war or national regeneration. This is both a doctrinal and a practical distinction. After all, most of these men - and a handful of women - currently command important political and economic resources in Iran and would stand to lose a great deal in the event of a wholesale takeover by the neophyte neo-conservatives.

Last January, they formally broke away from the UPF as it became clear that a condition for inclusion in the national list was a pledge not to criticize the Ahmadinejad government's policies. They eventually issued a separate list under the umbrella of Comprehensive Principlist Front containing the names of 235 candidates. In the first round of voting, they have managed to send in 79 of their declared candidates to the next parliament of which 36 are shared by the UPF list.

At present they have two promising presidential contenders who can run credible candidacies against Ahmadinejad in 2009: Larijani and Ghalibaf.

Larijani in particular is a rising star in the conservative firmament. His deft handling of the nuclear case as well as his connections in the Qum must send shivers through the presidential camp. He hails from a prominent clerical family. In this election, he chose to run from Qum where he received the endorsement of two dozen high-ranking clergymen. He easily beat two of his rivals with a comfortable margin - the candidate supported by the hard-line cleric Mesbah Yazdi in Qum received a paltry 2 percent of the votes. He is already burnishing his image as a champion of the poor by criticizing the government's inflationary and expansionary policies.

The face of the new parliament

The new parliament will be different from the old one in more ways than one. Power was centralized in the last legislative body and it lacked strong personalities who could stand up to the bullying tactics of the leadership, particularly vice speaker of the parliament Mohammad Bahonar, who more than anyone else forced it into compliance with the Ahmadinejad government.

The new parliament is different in that regard. It will not be dominated by a single all-powerful faction. Rather, it will be fractured with a more diffuse distribution of power. Of the four power centers - namely, UPF, CUF, reformists and independents - the last two will be numerically small but in conjunction with the CUF, they could change the balance of forces.

This is more than wishful thinking. While the pragmatic conservatives fear and hate the reformists, they consider the Ahmadinejad faction to be a greater immediate threat to their interests than the reformists. For many experts, the creation of ad hoc alliances inside the parliament encompassing the independents, the reformists and the CUF is not a far-fetched idea.

In his first press conference after the election, CUF spokesman Amir Ali Amiri made his factions' political preferences abundantly clear.

"The eighth parliament will be one in which the critics [of the governmet] will be in the majority," he told reporters. "[O]f course, if the government continues in its policies, the majority of the parliament will have to oppose it."

Amiri also explicitly dismissed Bahonar as their candidate for a possible parliamentary leadership role and, significantly, called Larijani as their main candidate for the next speaker of parliament. This is very important since most people assumed that the CUF would defer that position to Gholam Ali Hadadadel since he is an in-law of the Supreme Leader and the last parliament's speaker.

Of course, the Pragmatic Conservatives' maneuverings may be nothing but pressure tactics for extracting concessions from the hard-liners - such as gaining high positions in the next cabinet.

At the same time, the manifest inability of the Ahmadinejad camp so far to make meaningful concessions to most of its rivals could only mean one thing: that the political climate inside the next parliament for the next four years will be anything but tranquil.

By Kamal Nazer Yasin

Source >
ISN Security Watch

Kamal Nazer Yasin is the pseudonym of an Iranian journalist reporting for ISN Security Watch from Tehran

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