Washington, DC – “The upcoming election will help reveal ‘who’s who’ in Iran” according to Farideh Farhi, an Independent Scholar and Affiliate Graduate Faculty at the University of Hawaii. The results of the forthcoming Parliamentary elections will help decipher the loyalties and ideological stances of Iran’s political elite. Yet the trajectory of Iran’s political future, adds Farhi, remains shrouded in ambiguity.
International development specialist and author of Duality by Design: The Iranian Electoral System Yasmin Alem, and Associate Professor of Political Science at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs Mehrzad Boroujerdi joined Farhi on a panel last week discussing the possible implications of Iran’s upcoming Parliamentary elections in March.
In her discussion, Alem highlighted the role that Parliamentary elections traditionally play in providing a framework for guided competition among Iran’s political elite. The Islamic Republic manages limited competition in elections through specific strategies: the systematic disqualifications of candidates, the demarcation of political figures based on their loyalty to the regime, and the annulment of unwanted electoral results. These tactics, overseen by Iran’s powerful Guardian Council, “have carved the democratic heart out of the electoral process,” according to Alem. “The best way to exclude [unwanted elements] from parliamentary elections is to make it look legal.”
Alem notes that through these institutional mechanisms, the circle of political elites in Iran has steadily shrunk. Increasingly, candidates are “disqualified based on their practical engagement to the ideals of the Supreme Leader,’’ says Alem. The “elections are engineered,” allowing “for some pluralism…and meant to ensure regime survival.”
In addition, Farhi highlighted the role that Parliamentary elections traditionally play in providing a stage for unity and compromise amongst the elite. But the increased political infighting since the 2009 presidential elections has changed everything. Boroujerdi notes that the 8th Parliament of Iran (2008-2012) has slowly become an extension of the Supreme Leader’s office—in an attempt to centralize the Supreme Leader’s power and solidify the regime. What’s unclear this time around is “whether elections will play a moderating role in controlling factional conflicts,” says Farhi. “Since 2009 all gloves are off,” adds Alem.
All three panelists acknowledge the importance of voter turnout in this year’s election. Farhi and Alem expect voter turnout to decrease in Tehran, but whether turnout will decrease in smaller cities remains to be seen. In the past, “mega cities, such as Tehran, were a source of variation [of voter turnout] but in smaller urban areas, voting has generally remained consistent,” stated Farhi–creating an aura of legitimacy around the regime. Whether this trend of high voter turnout will continue is unclear.
In light of the internal power struggle between the conservative camps, the reformists also face a difficult challenge—whether to commit to boycotting the upcoming elections. “The regime insiders have changed…people originally part of the revolution [are] becoming part of the outsiders, stated Alem. Boroujerdi notes that since the exclusion of the reformists, it is “quite natural for the conservatives to might amongst one another.”
Yet, despite massive arrests following the 2009 presidential elections, reformists have not been completely purged from the system. The reformists face a serious dilemma—maintaining their support amongst the opposition and fighting against the exclusionary mechanisms of the regime, while at the same time attempting to lead the current system towards a more positive direction.
What is clear is that “We have entered the period where the most aggressive parts of [the] Islamic Republic are fighting each other,” stated Farhi, and “who knows where it ends.”