Washington, DC – “Over the past 32 years, elections have shaped the Iranian landscape and determined the Islamic Republic’s trajectory,” according to Yasmin Alem, author of the International Foundation for Electoral Systems’ newest publication, Duality by Design: the Iranian Electoral System. Yet the discourse about Iran, says Alem, has lacked a fundamental understanding of the government’s institutions and elections processes.
Atlantic Council’s non-resident Senior Fellow Barbara Slavin and University of North Carolina professor Andrew Reynolds joined Alem on a panel last week examining the electoral system of Iran and discussing potential reforms.
In her study, Alem highlights the significance of high voter turnout rates in Iran. “The Islamic Republic interprets the participation of Iranians in elections as their renewal of allegiance with the regime,” she said. However, “the elections that have had a high voter turnout have really been a vote of no confidence for the establishment.” Alem noted the steady decline of clerics in the Majles (parliament) from 55 percent in 1984 to a mere 14 percent at present.
Slavin and Alem predicted that the parliamentary elections set to take place during March 2012 will be indicative of the future of electoral politics in Iran. “It’s quite possible that we will witness a fundamental realignment of factional politics [among conservatives] in Iran,” stated Alem.
Regional events are going to influence Iranian electoral politics, according to Slavin. “People are watching what is happening…and they’re even more disgusted with the shortcomings of their own system as a result,” she said. “If you’re having a freely elected president in Egypt [and] a freely elected president in Tunisia…it’s going to be very hard as an Iranian to justify coming out to vote for Tweedle Dee or Tweedle Dumb.”
All panelists supported major reforms of Iran’s electoral system and argued that the Guardian Council poses serious challenges to democratization in Iran. Slavin said that “the system is tipped toward those who are well-known personalities, mainly those that have been in power or close to power for years and years.” Alem advocated for a popular referendum to direct changes to the institutional structure of the Islamic Republic. “As it stands now, with the Guardian Council controlling elections and using it as an exclusionary mechanism, I don’t think we can move forward with this system,” she said. But with reform, “I don’t think we need to discard everything.”
Reynolds discussed what he said were some positive aspects of the Iranian electoral system, particularly some recognition for minorities and a history of competition in electoral politics. “Elections are moments of opportunity, and they can be used as a significant moment to herald and facilitate change.” Future elections, Reynolds said, can “provide a fulcrum leverage moment where the old regime really has to transform itself and new types of politics come to power.”
But Reynolds emphasized that the mere holding of elections does not guarantee reform, and said that in Iran’s case, elections are “a veneer that hides deep illegitimacy in the state and authoritarianism in the state.”
Slavin maintained that change will only come from the office of Supreme Leader. Hashemi Rafsanjani’s removal from the Assembly of Experts, she said, will push him further into the reformist camp, meaning he will no longer serve the role as a moderator between Iranian factions and elites. “Until you have an ‘Ayatollah Gorbachev’ or get rid of the job of Supreme Leader altogether, you’re always going to have [the Guardian Council] there vetting candidates, preventing people from truly participating.”