Two Iranian Elections: One Local, One Lofty

A pair of important elections in Iran may indicate which direction the public mood is swinging ahead of parliamentary polls next year.

December 12, 2006

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Elections and Voting

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Iranians go the polls December 15 to vote in two elections: one for municipal councils and the other for the Assembly of Experts, a body with powers over the Supreme Leader. While the elections are expected to have little impact on Iranian foreign policy, analysts are watching these elections closely to detect shifts in the public mood ahead of next year’s parliamentary elections. The polls will be watched closely for signs of a boost to reformists or a split within Iran’s conservative camp.

What is the Assembly of Experts?

It is a body of eighty-six ayatollahs who serve eight-year terms. Its primary power is to pick, supervise, and dismiss the supreme leader. The Assembly is not a legislative body with any powers to directly control policy or the president. The body’s independence is further circumscribed by what Mehdi Khalaji of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy calls a “paradoxical” part of Iran’s constitution—candidates for the Assembly must be approved by the Guardian Council, a powerful conservative body whose clerical members are appointed by the Supreme Leader himself. “It’s a vicious circle,” Khalaji adds. “Politically, its main function is to give legitimacy to the supreme leader and to the Islamic Republic.” Yet A. William Samii of the Center for Naval Analyses says the Assembly “is more powerful than it appears on paper. It can use its power in informal ways to influence some decisions the supreme leader makes.”  

What’s the significance of the Assembly election?

Experts are watching its returns closely to gauge which of Iran’s two main conservative factions will win: the traditionalist, older wing of the revolutionary generation—what CFR Adjunct Senior Fellow Vali R. Nasr calls mercantilist or business-friendly conservatives, led by former President Hashemi Rafsanjani—versus the younger, more populist wing of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his religious adviser Ayatollah Mohammed Taghi Mesbah-Yazdi. The election also could determine the next Supreme Leader of Iran after Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Khamenei is said to be in poor health and in the event of his death in the next eight years, the Assembly of Experts would choose his successor. Some experts say this group might opt instead to form a council of leaders, rather than one supreme leader with absolute authority.

What are the powers of the Supreme Leader?

According to the constitution, the Supreme Leader is the highest-ranking political and religious authority in Iran. He serves as commander-in-chief of the armed and police forces; the head of Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB), the state ministry in control of television and radio; and leader of the country’s judiciary. Perhaps most important, "He’s the person steering the Iranian nuclear ship," says Karim Sadjadpour, an analyst at the International Crisis Group. Within all of Iran’s governing bodies, the Supreme Leader has representatives who report back to him.

Who is running for the assembly?

There are 163 candidates who have won approval from the Guardian Council, most of them from conservative backgrounds. “When you have a set of conservative candidates, it’s really more of a politburo sort of election,” says Nasr. “A secular person outside the system cannot participate.” It also disallowed any women from running. Mesbah-Yazdi, a conservative, complained that many of his candidates, including his own son, were disqualified by the Guardian Council as well. “By disqualifying some of Mesbah-Yazdi’s disciples, Khamenei conveyed a clear message to the president and to Mesbah himself that they cannot bypass the Supreme Leader,” Khalaji writes.

Is voter turnout expected to be high?

No. Participation at previous Assembly of Experts elections was lower than other elections in Iran. “[Iranians] regard it as a hollow body whose decisions have no bearing on political realities,” Khalaji writes in this Washington Institute for Near East Policy report. “Voters tend to blow this off as a bunch of clerics who meet twice a year,” adds Samii, or they view the election as “fixed and predetermined” because many candidates are disqualified and no outside observers are allowed.

Turnout is a bigger factor in the municipal elections. Low participation tends to favor more conservative candidates, says Nasr, because then only the die-hard party members turn out. But some experts say voter turnout may be higher than expected. Earlier talks of a boycott by moderate candidates were shelved. A higher turnout could split conservative voters and thus hurt Ahmadinejad’s candidates while helping the reformists. Further, it could “mean more middle class voters going to the polls (Arab News) to counterbalance the peasants and urban poor who constitute the president’s electoral base,” writes Amir Taheri, an Iranian-born analyst now based in London.

Which issues are important to voters in the municipal elections?

Up for election are city council members nationwide. They wield little power and have small budgets but are able to appoint mayors for towns and cities. “The municipal elections will be about bread and butter issues,” Nasr says. “Voters want to know: Who’s going to fix my roads? Who’s going to create jobs? Who’s going to protect state subsidies?” Issues of foreign policy or Iran ’s nuclear program are not likely to weigh on voters’ minds, experts say. Voters tend to support candidates with familial, ethnic, or local ties. “Sometimes they’ll vote for the local son but it’s not always a sure thing,” says Samii, adding that in presidential elections Ahmadinejad fared poorly in the province where he previously had served as governor-general. 

Have municipal elections proved significant in the past?

Yes. Local elections in the past have served as indicators of which way the Iranian population was leaning. “They’re not important in policy terms but they are important symbolically,” Nasr says. “They are not so much a barometer of how strong the reformists are as a barometer of which factions of conservatives may be rising.” In 2003, fundamentalists swept to power in local elections and later appointed Ahmadinejad, then an unknown, as mayor of Tehran. “Hard-liners are hoping to repeat the same success,” Khalaji says. Yet experts like Taheri predict Iran ’s reformists may fare better in these elections than in previous ones. “They can show they’re still relevant and in the game,” says Samii. “They’ve lost the last three major elections. They need a win.” A victory for reformists in Iran’s local elections—particularly in Tehran —might set the stage for them in next year’s parliamentary elections. But “if the reformists are routed completely then they’ll have failed as a political force,” says Nasr.

Which local election is most important?

The political implications of these elections are largest in Tehran. The former mayor of the capital city, Ahmadinejad, rose to become president. This year, experts say the reformists have a chance to win the local council, which is Iran ’s largest and most influential. Most reformist candidates in the capital, unlike those in rural parts, won approval to run in the elections. And there is a growing rift between the conservative camps of Ahmadinejad and the current mayor, Mohammed Baqer Qalibaf, a pragmatic conservative and former chief of police who lost to Ahmadinejad in last year’s presidential election. Nasr says “Qalibaf is using the mayor’s office to build a political machine and [enhance his] reputation for a next bid for the presidency.”

How will reformists fare?

Besides the growing rift among factions within Iran’s conservative camp, reformists might be aided by the growing discontent among Iran’s population at the populism of Ahmadinejad. “He promised people [before the 2005 presidential elections] to do lots of things,” says Khalaji, “but now it appears all those promises were empty.” In a recent sign of discontent, students at a Tehran university heckled the president and shouted “Death to the dictator!” Although there are no reliable opinion polls available, news reports suggest double-digit unemployment rates and rising inflation are creating disillusionment with the populist president among Iranians young and old. Restrictions on satellite televisions, stricter enforcement of Islamic dress codes, and human rights abuses have also dampened Ahmadinejad’s popularity, according to TIME.

Are both of these elections expected to be free or fair?

Aside from the vetting process for candidates, which is heavily politicized and opaque, the elections themselves are expected to be relatively transparent and free of irregularities. Khalaji says these elections will be more democratic than local elections in, say, Bahrain, but less democratic than ones in Turkey.

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