TEHRAN, 14 Dec. (IPS) When Iranians vote on Friday to elect more than 110,000 members to city and village councils across the country and also choose the 86 members of the powerful Experts Assembly, they may well be deciding the future course of Iran.
The city councils are considered the crucible in which national leaders are molded - a prime example being President Mahmoud Ahmadi Nezhad himself.
With a new platform and new faces, a hardline faction that called itself Developers of Islamic Iran took over Tehran city council from its reformist rivals in 2003.
City councils, established in 1999 during the reformist Mohammad Khatami's presidency, hold a degree of independence from the government. They appoint mayors and govern municipal activities. Yet, in their short history, they have played an important role in Iranian politics and are now seen as a springboard for political factions. The Tehran city council holds great importance in the coming elections.
Weary of internal conflicts among reformists and Khatami's inability to cope with pressure from other centers of power that stalled reforms, voters stayed away from previous council elections. With a new platform and new faces, a hardline faction that called itself Developers of Islamic Iran took over Tehran city council from its reformist rivals in 2003.
That hardline council then elected Mahmoud Ahmadi Nezhad as mayor and he went on to become Iran's president. Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, one of Ahmadi Nezhad's rivals for presidency from within the hardline camp, was elected by the council as mayor when Ahmadi Nezhad took office as president.
"Qalibaf has much at stake now. If a coalition of Ahmadi Nezhad supporters wins the seats of the council, he will be out as mayor, and the political career of the former Revolutionary Guards air force commander will come to a very early end. Ahmadi Nezhad and his supporters are absolutely determined to eradicate him", said a political analyst in Tehran, asking not to be named.
"It is not only Qalibaf they want out. Hardline Ahmadi Nezhad supporters have no respect for the traditional conservatives either. They are refusing any concessions to enter into a coalition with the others because they have an exaggerated estimation of the votes Ahmadi Nezhad got as president", he said.
Hardliners and conservatives are now divided into Ahmadi Nezhad supporter groups, the mayor's supporters, traditional conservatives and a number of other hardliners of different leanings. There are also a number of independents who can sway the results. In Tehran more than 1,200 candidates are running for 15 seats.
Ahead of the polling, hardliners and conservatives have managed to narrow down their electoral lists to two, those supporting Ahmadi Nezhad and those with Qalibaf.
Defeated by hardliners and conservatives for their failure to unite in three consecutive elections for city councils, parliament and presidency, reformists claim they have learned their lesson. They are now backing a 15-member list of candidates for the Tehran city council and Khatami has accepted nominal leadership of this reformist coalition.
The success of reformists in uniting and the failure of the "Principled" (the name chosen by hardliners and conservatives for their coalition in the past) to offer a single slate of candidates so far has caused bitter concern in the latter camp. And to worsen things, much of the bickering has now become public, with Ahmadi Nezhad supporters getting blamed for the failure by hardliners.
"If reformists win, international pressure on the Iranian government will increase. There will be more pressure domestically from the opposition, government supporters will be disillusioned and blame the ones whose illusions of victory led to defeat of The Principled. The real losers will be The Principled", Ahmad Tavakkoli, influential hardline member of Parliament and Ahmadi Nezhad critic, wrote in an editorial on the Alef portal.
Conservatives who were left out of centers of power by the younger hardliners after last year's presidential elections are being blamed for the failure too. "If The Principled fail to unite with conservatives, they will have to go their separate ways and create a new political entity", Mohsen Reza’i, former Revolutionary Guards chief commander and present secretary of the Expediency Council, was quoted as saying by the Baztab website. Reza’i recently joined forces with the mayor's supporters.
On the streets of Tehran there is little enthusiasm for upcoming elections.
The other elections are for the Experts Assembly that convenes only twice a year. Its main function is choosing the country's supreme leader, deposing him if he is found incompetent, and supervising his performance while in office - a responsibility the assembly has been accused by critics of not taking seriously.
A number of reformist parties, including the one headed by Khatami, while not boycotting the assembly elections, have not put forth any candidate lists as most reformist clerics have been vetted out by the Guardian Council.
A six-member group, the Guardian Council appointed by the Supreme Leader, interprets the constitution, gives final approval to parliamentary legislation, and vets election candidates and supervises all elections except those of city and village councils. In some constituencies, the Guardians have left just one candidate to vote for.
The main competition in the Experts Assembly elections is between supporters of the fundamentalist Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Mesbah Yazdi (Ahmadi Nezhad's mentor), conservatives, and a few that are more inclined toward reforms. The most prominent among the latter is former president Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, currently chairman of the Expediency Council and incumbent vice chairman of the assembly. Another is Hojjatoleslam Hasan Rohani, Iran's chief nuclear negotiator under Khatami.
On the streets of Tehran there is little enthusiasm for upcoming elections. "I'm not going to vote. What difference can it make? I'll never vote if elections are not really free and most candidates are disqualified for their beliefs", said Hanieh, 20, a college student in Tehran.
Others are more enthusiastic. ''We always refused to vote, thinking if the turnout was low, the system would lose its legitimacy and collapse. This has gone on for years now and nothing has changed. I think I'm going to vote this time, and I'll encourage my family, too", said a middle-aged taxi driver who did not want to be named.
''Hardliners and conservatives have the advantage of using the extensive network of mosques for their campaigns and all the favors they receive from the state-run TV," a reformist journalist choosing to remain anonymous said. "But now that reformists have overcome most of their internal conflicts and are acting in relatively high unison, and with support from the Nationalist-Religious opposition that has lost all its candidates to vetting, they have a good chance to pave their way to come back to power, but only if turnout is high and vote rigging and election fraud can be prevented.
"Elections are held by the Interior Ministry. Just a few months ago Ahmadi Nezhad's top aide and adviser, Mojtaba Samare-Hashemi, resigned from his high position to become a deputy of the Interior Ministry in charge of holding and supervision of elections. The appointment strengthens suspicions of plans to influence the results by the government", she said.
"In view of strong allegations of millions of fake identity cards being used by organized bands in voting and influencing of elections by the militia arm of the Revolutionary Guards in different ways in Ahmadi Nezhad's favor in presidential elections last year, there is great concern, not only among reformists, but also among some hardline rivals of the president's supporters. The way elections are held this time is going to be a real test of democracy for the Islamic Republic", she said. ENDS ELECTIONS 151206
Editor’s note: Mr. San’ati is a regular contributor to Inter Press Service, analyzing Iranian affairs.
The above article was posted by Inter Press Service on 14 December 200
Highlights and some phonetisation of names are by Iran Press Service