Another political soap opera in Iran

The election cycle was an emotional rollercoaster for the nominees, political parties and anyone following the developments.

Gulf News

The battle for the 290 parliamentary seats in Iran still continues but, according to the official results so far, the March 14 elections have proven to be a success for the conservatives and a lost battle for the reformists.

According to the Fars News Agency, 223 candidates have so far been elected to the eighth parliament. Out of this number, 166 conservatives, 32 reformists and 24 independent candidates have been chosen as the new parliamentary members and 112 candidates have entered the second round of elections. Based on new Iranian election laws candidates with less than twenty-five per cent of the total vote have to enter a second round of elections.

Like many past elections, this election cycle was an emotional rollercoaster for the nominees, political parties and anyone following the political developments in the past several months. The overwhelming number of disqualifications made by the Guardian Council, the unprecedented involvement of the interior ministry, and the battle between the reformist and conservative parties made the Iranian political scene on par with a TV soap opera - superfluous and unpredictable.

Iranians, on a national level, elect the president, the parliament, and an Assembly of Experts, which in turn elects the Supreme Leader. Including the city and village council elections held every 4 years, Iran is rarely out of an election cycle. In fact, since the 1979 revolution, on average, Iran has had one election per year, which makes for an exhausted electorate. Despite abundance of elections, each election cycle is uniquely important, and provides a different picture of the country's political landscape.

The current election cycle was a great test for the Mohafeze Karan or conservatives (currently known as the Principlists). They comprise groups and parties including the party of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad - "Pleasant Scent of Service".

According to the Iranian interior ministry about 7,200 people, including 590 women, applied for the parliamentary elections. By the time the Guardian Council, which is an unelected 12-member body of clerics and Islamic jurists with oversight powers, was done with the process of reviewing the applications, nearly one third of the candidates were disqualified from Iran's parliamentary elections.

This is a staggering number, keeping in mind the loose nomination laws pertaining to a parliamentary candidate. To be fair, the Iranian system is designed to appear democratic by allowing anyone who is above the age of eighteen to register his/her name as a potential candidate, but in reality many of these individuals do not have the experience or the qualifications for the post.

Banning

The interior ministry also played a very unusual role during this election cycle. Under Ahmadinejad's control, the interior ministry took an active role in banning a great number of reformist candidates including Ali Eshraghi, the grandson of the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of Iran's Islamic Republic.

This election cycle proved to be a great challenge for both the conservatives' and reformists' parties. Due to high disqualification rates the reformists presented a unified list of candidates to reduce the chance of further exclusion of their party candidates, but this proved to be a difficult task. After much talks and negotiations between different party leaders, former reformist president Mohammad Khatami inspired the formation of a reformist coalition which represented the major hope for the reformists. But even with this coalition, the reformists could only contest just under half the seats in parliament; the National Confidence Party of reformist cleric Mehdi Karroubi fared only a little better.

While conservatives successfully ousted many reformists they could only excessively do so at their own peril. If the number of reformists allowed to participate in the election was too high there was a chance of conservatives losing their foothold in the eighth parliament, but too many disqualifications also put the legitimacy of the election process under question. The conservatives searched for the magic number of candidates to disqualify while they endured criticism from some high governmental officials including Hasan Khomeini, another grandson of Ayatollah Khomeini, who warned against the support of fundamentalists by senior military commanders.

This election cycle was a great test for Ahmadinejad and his party. Reformists and conservatives alike have harshly criticised him, and no party would have wanted to be affiliated with him or his policies. Even Ali Larijani, the former chief nuclear negotiator, who is leading the conservative front in this election, has made it clear that he has "ideological differences" with Ahmadinejad. He criticised Ahmadinejad's economic policies and blamed his administration for the current record inflation rates. Ahmadinejad's main party platform in 2005 promised wide economic reforms and more social freedoms, but he has not been able to carry out any of those promises and his so-called reforms have put the Iranian economy in a critical condition.

These election results must be observed for what they are - a forecast for the 2009 presidential elections. With the conservatives' hold over the current political scene, no major changes will be forthcoming. Conservatives are holding key positions in the parliament and reformists are the minority voice in the legislative process. The election cycle was a barometer for Ahmadinejad and the possibility of his reelection as a second-term president. Despite many predictions, Ahmadinejad's party performed well and increased his chances of becoming a second-term president.

Furthermore, this election cycle highlighted many weaknesses within the reformist front, such as lack of organisation, and absence of a viable candidate for the 2009 presidential elections. Just like a soap opera, the Iranian political characters come and go, only to remain confined to a plot line that seems condemned to be repeated.

Reza H. Akbari is a Washington-based researcher on US foreign policy towards the Middle East/Iran.

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