Iran elections: duel at the top

 

Asharq Alawsat – With the deadline for candidate registration, this week Iran entered campaign mood for next March’s parliamentary elections.

According to the Interior Ministry over 5000 people have filled application forms to become candidates, a 32 per cent fall compared to elections four years ago. The fall may be due to several factors, including boycott calls by opposition groups and a spreading realisation that the next Islamic Consultative Assembly, Iran’s ersatz parliament, may have even less power than its predecessors in the past three decades.

An analysis of those seeking the candidacy reveals the narrowing appeal of the exercise.

Four years ago, applicants came from broad sections of society.

This time, the overwhelming majority come from the security services, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and the network of mullahs appointed by “Supreme Guide” Ali Khamenei as “Friday Prayer Leaders”. Technocrats working for companies controlled by the IRGC are also present in significant numbers.

In previous elections, the regime’s different factions were present with dozens of candidates.

This time, fewer than 20 people could be identified as members of the faction led by former President Hashemi Rafsanjani, once regarded as “strongman”. Rafsanjani has lost all but one of his official positions. The remaining one, as head of the Expediency Council, is due for renewal next April, and many expect he would be fired.

Despite its call for boycott, the faction led by former Prime Minister Mir-Hussein Mussavi, still under house arrest, is present with a dozen applicants. A dozen other applicants could be identified as Mussavi sympathisers.

Other applicants known for their reluctance to bow to Khamenei may number around 20.

To become candidates, applicants must be approved by the Council of the Guardians, a mullah-dominated organ. Thus, there is no guarantee that anyone identified as critical of the “Supreme Guide” would be allowed to stand.

Contrary to expectations, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad claims to have decided to adopt a neutral profile, refusing to endorse any candidates.

“The President has no candidates,” Ahmadinejad’s office says.

At first glance, therefore, this looks like a masquerade to confirm Khamenei’s domination of the political scene.

However, the first glance may be deceptive.

A closer examination of the applicants reveals a more interesting picture.

Despite similar backgrounds, applicants may not all be Khamenei worshippers.

In the absence of free elections, it is virtually impossible to measure the actual support that Khamenei actually has. However, there is abundant evidence that, in free elections, he might not win a majority.

Ahmadinejad knows that. This is why, despite claims of neutrality, he is the unofficial leader of a faction that has hundreds of applicants and hopes to be present in all constituencies in March.

Ahmadinejad has been building his support-base for years and clearly hopes to secure control of the future Majlis as a springboard for presidential elections in 2013. Under present rules, Ahmadinejad cannot seek a third mandate. However, he has learned from his “brother”, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, that rules could be changed and a determined man could hang on to presidency for life.

The addictive pull of power is such that no one would simply head for the exit.

Of the four previous presidents, one, Abol-Hassan Banisadr, was forced into exile, and another, Muhammad-Ali Raja’i, was assassinated. Khamenei became “Supreme Guide”. Rafsanjani was kept in orbit for two decades and mollified. Muhammad Khatami, tried to become the godfather of “reformists”.

Thus, the idea that, in 2013, Ahmadinejad would simply go fishing is daft. He is also unlikely to go into exile, if only because no one, apart from Chavez, would let him in. To be sure, assassination remains an option. But that, too, may not be as easy as it sounds. Even if not allowed to stand himself, Ahmadinejad is sure to promote one of his friends, perhaps Esfandiar Masha’i.

In 2005, Ahmadinejad claimed that he had been preparing “ to serve the nation” since the 1980s. Masha’i claimed that the two started preparing for the presidency in the 1990s.

Ahmadinejad’s supporters are using “taqiyeh”, religious dissimulation, for political purposes.

Hiding links with the president, they try to appear as Khamenei’s fanatical followers. The idea is to give the “Council of Guardians” no excuse to veto their candidacy. Once that barrier is passed, their support network, built- over years, would fabricate majorities for them.

The Ahmadinejad faction has another advantage. It controls the Interior Ministry, which runs the elections from start to finish, and could produce the necessary number of properly filled ballot boxes. Yet another advantage is that almost all provincial governors and mayors of major cities belong to the same faction.

Ahamdinejad and his friends believe that, as an ideology, Khomeinism as symbolised by Khamenei, is dead. They hope to prolong the life of the regime with a new ideology that, although using Khomeinist rhetoric, moves on a different trajectory.

What that ideology is could be discussed in a future article.

For the time being, we must not dismiss the coming elections as totally without interest. Next March we may witness a duel at the top of the Khomeinist state at a time of acute economic and political crisis.

 

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