Iran: No Letup In Election Controversy
By Bill Samii
WASHINGTON, August 29, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Iran is nearing the end of its annual commemoration of the country's political leadership on August 24-30. "Government Week" is an opportunity for the administration to tell Iranians how much it has done for them in the past year -- and how much better off they will be in the coming year.
But as government week unfolded, the date was pushed back for upcoming elections to municipal councils and the powerful Assembly of Experts -- along with four parliamentary by-elections. And a dispute is brewing over regulations for all national and local elections.
Interior Minister Hojatoleslam Mustafa Purmohammadi recently confirmed that all the slated elections would be held on December 15 (Azar 24 on the Iranian calendar). The elections were previously scheduled for November.
Elections for the Assembly -- an 86-member body of clerics tasked with supervising the Supreme Leader's performance -- take place every eight years; the last elections were in October 1998. Municipal council elections take place every four years, and the last ones took place in February 2003.
Purmohammadi said officials will be ready, and he expressed the "hope that they will be held in a healthy atmosphere [of] serious competition," Isfahan provincial television reported on August 25. He also encouraged "large-scale participation by the people."
The timing of the elections is especially relevant for the political parties as it affects campaigning. Some of the secular parties -- like the Islamic Iran Participation Front -- do not intend to field candidates for the Assembly of Experts, the 86-member group of clerics that supervises Iran's supreme leader.
But the municipal-council elections are a different matter. Party leaders recognize that the outcome of big-city contests could significantly affect national politics. Indeed, the officials who currently lead Iran gained their first electoral victories in 2003 council elections, and they followed up by dominating February 2004 parliamentary elections.
Enter The Basij
The Interior Ministry submitted a comprehensive election bill at the end of July that is likely to affect these elections if it passes the pro-government parliament. The bill would change the rules for vetting candidates and is in many aspects controversial -- not least in its aim of involving a reserve-like arm of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) in key steps in the electoral process.
Under current regulations, information on prospective candidates has been provided by the election registrar, the Ministry of Intelligence and Security, the police, and the judiciary. The new bill proposes that the IRGC's paramilitary force, the Basij, evaluate the information before sending it on to the committees that supervise and run elections.
Official involvement of the Basij in elections is controversial. There were accusations after the 2005 presidential elections that the Basij had acted on behalf of current President Mahmud Ahmadinejad. Critics suggested that because the Basij was acting like a political party, it should change its official status accordingly. The mobilization of the IRGC on behalf of certain candidates also upset some observers.
When asked about the proposed role of the Basij in upcoming elections, former Interior Minister Abdolvahed Musavi-Lari compared it to "handing over elections to the armed forces" and filtering out would-be candidates "who are not approved by certain political groups," "Etemad" reported on July 29. The ex-minister noted that military involvement in elections is illegal and contradicts the wishes of revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, "Kargozaran" reported on July 30.
A member of the Executive of Construction party, Hussein Marashi, warned that involving the Basij in elections was unlikely to increase voter turnout, "Kargozaran" reported on July 30. Instead, he advocated a greater role for political parties.
Morteza Moballeq, who was deputy interior minister for political affairs in the reformist administration of President Mohammad Khatami, said recently that the law makes no mention of any Basij investigation of candidates for elected office, "Mardom Salari" reported on August 23.
Guardians Council Supervision
Article 99 of Iran's constitution prescribes that the Guardians Council supervises all but municipal-council elections. In that capacity, it vets candidates and can even overturn election results. In the past, the duty of supervising municipal-council elections has fallen to parliament, and candidates have been vetted locally. But under the proposed legislation, the Guardians Council would supervise all elections -- handing it unprecedented power to vet even municipal candidates.
A lawmaker from Bojnurd in the northeast, Ismail Gerami-Moghaddam, has noted that significant problem with the existing rules. He calls the fact that "members of the Guardians Council are both candidates [for the Assembly of Experts] and supervisors...contrary to democratic logic and to people's rule of an Islamic kind," "Etemad" reported on August 13. Gerami-Moghaddam recommends the involvement of religious scholars in judging the suitability of candidates for the Assembly of Experts.
Gerami-Moghaddam adds that a former parliamentary speaker, Hojatoleslam Mehdi Karrubi, has written a letter to the Assembly of Experts chairman, Ayatollah Ali Meshkini, on the same topic. The former speaker argues that handing that vetting process to religious scholars would comply with the constitution and fulfill the wishes of the late Ayatollah Khomeini.
The ex-speaker's letter was discussed in a number of national newspapers on August 27. He reportedly urged the Assembly of Experts to create a committee of its own members to supervise the election, rather than allowing the Guardians Council to do it. He argues that the change would eliminate fears that the Guardians Council is limiting people's rights or violating the constitution.
New Qualifications For President
The proposed election bill would also introduce new qualifications for presidential aspirants. Those requirements would be educational and formal, but would also include litmus tests on contentious and potentially vague issues like support for religion, morality, and Iranian independence. They would also impose endorsement requirements from senior politicians, civil servants, and academics.
The proposed qualifications represent a considerable expansion on current constitutional restrictions.
New requirements include at least a master's degree, familiarity with national and international issues and Iran's defense policies, and support of the constitution. Candidates would also have to support the propagation of religion, morality, and justice, and believe in Iran's independence. Other qualifications would include the ability to administer national affairs and to coordinate different agencies, as well as having a program for national political, economic, and cultural affairs.
Prospective presidential candidates must be endorsed by 50 parliamentarians from 20 different provinces and 20 Assembly of Experts members from 10 different provinces. Moreover, endorsements are required from ten judges, 50 people who have served as deputy ministers or in equivalent administrative posts, and 100 members of academic faculties.
Article 115 of the constitution already identifies qualifications for presidential candidates. One must be of Iranian origin and have Iranian nationality, must be a resourceful administrator, must have a good record, must be trustworthy and pious, and must believe in the Islamic republic system and its fundamental principles. The president must be a religious-political individual (rejal-i mazhabi-siasi).
Many observers criticized this aspect of the election bill. A senior member of the centrist Executives of Construction Party, Hedayat Aqai, says future elections would be "meaningless" because the bill ensures that the group already in power continues to get elected, "Kargozaran" reported on July 30. Hedayat Aqai says "the blueprint for conditions for candidates is to make presidential elections, and even council elections, more like Assembly of Experts elections." He warns that the changes would mean "a specific group of people enters a circle and the same circle keeps getting elected."
Legislator Ismail Gerami-Moghaddam argues there is no need to restate candidate qualifications, since they are already outlined in the constitution, "Etemad-i Melli" reported on July 30. He says the proposal would restrict the public's right to choose and increase government influence over the outcome of elections, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on July 30.
A leader of the reformist Islamic Iran Participation Party, Jalal Jalalizadeh, says the bill is backed by the same faction that currently backs the executive branch, and this faction seeks political homogeneity, "Mardom Salari" reported on August 1. He cautions that passage of the bill would eliminate many competitors "and says that, in the long term, the president [would] be appointed instead of being elected."
An unattributed report on August 3 in the reformist "Etemad" daily summarizes the reformists' objection to the bill. They reportedly think it would prove impossible for the reformist minority to gain the approval of the required 50 legislators or 20 members of the Assembly of Experts. They also express concern that a president who has sought and gained the endorsement of so many people might be indebted to those same elements.
One aspect of the proposed election bill that appears to have won grudging approval is council and parliamentary candidates' obligation to put down a deposit. The deposit would be returned to parliamentary candidates who garner 5 percent of the vote and council candidates who receive 2 percent. The proceeds from failed candidates would go toward defraying election costs. Most observers agree that this would limit the number of people who register on a whim, thereby reducing government expenses.
The bill also proposes a minimum voting age of 18 years. The current voting age is 15. It also proposes an end to extensions of polling hours, noting that people flood the polling places shortly before the scheduled closure because they know extensions will be forthcoming.
The Bill's Defenders
Not everyone opposes the proposed election bill, particularly the officials most closely involved with its creation. Deputy Interior Minister for Political Affairs Ali Jannati insists that every aspect of the bill is based on the constitution, "Sharq" reported on August 15. He adds that requiring endorsements for candidates would be unnecessary if Iran had a strong party system. But under the current circumstances, he says it is "more necessary to have the confirmation and approval of the members of the elite."
Jannati also emphasizes that the Basij's function in vetting candidates would not be the same as that of the other institutions involved in the process. He points out that the Guardians Council already gets its information from multiple sources, and it is authorized to supervise elections in any way it sees fit. His argument is that the Basij can ensure that reports about candidates get to the authorities. Jannati claims that the Basij's "huge and pervasive popular base in society, and its members'... [presence] in all social groups and strata in the country" make it the right group for this "important task."
Jannati also makes the point that the election bill is not yet finalized, "Etemad" reported on August 20. He cites "comments of parties and elites and experts" that highlight "13 problems with the bill, many of which have an answer." Jannati vows to "resolve acceptable flaws at the next stage" in the legislation process.
Former parliamentary speaker Hojatoleslam Ali-Akbar Nateq-Nuri says the bill is correct in forcing candidates to earn endorsements to avoid frivolous candidacies, "Etemad-i Melli" reported on August 23. Nateq-Nuri argues that "any proposal that can lead to a set of conditions which will prevent just about everyone from standing as election candidates and wasting time and money is a useful proposal."
The election proposal has been the topic of considerable commentary since its introduction in July. And while influential cleric Hojatoleslam Ahmad Khatami avoided the topic during an August 25 sermon in Tehran, he stressed that Iran's unnamed "enemy" was trying to create a gap between the people and the government, state radio reported. "They have continuously failed," Khatami said, adding that "our dear people believe that the government belongs to them."
The proposed election bill's limitations on public participation in elections -- as voters and as candidates -- threatens to reduce that sense of ownership. Voter turnout will signal the extent to which Iranians truly feel like stakeholders in their government.
Copyright (c) 2006. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036. www.rferl.org
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