Orignially posted March 2008

The 8th parliamentary election for the Islamic Republic of Iran will take place on March 14, 2008. One of the challenges of any election in Iran is determining just how free, fair, and competitive it is. The parliamentary election law bans those political activists who are deemed to lack “sufficient” belief in Islam, the 1979 Constitution, or the Supreme Leader — and the elections supervisor and administration usually wield the law as a tool in order to ban any rivals.  In addition, cheating on Election Day and annulling votes are frequently employed tools for blocking certain political rivals from winning seats in the Majlis.

In the run up to the March elections, candidates allied with the Reformists, including several former Ministers, Members of Parliament, and clerics, have been disqualified. Reformists claim that, because of these disqualifications, they have been able to provide a list of just 60[1] candidates to contest the 290 Parliamentary seats. Even Shahabeddin Sadr, Executive Director of the Fundamentalist Coalition and a well-known Conservative, acknowledged that, “95 percent of the candidates for the 8th Parliament are fundamentalists.”[2]

The disqualification of opposition candidates is not new. Indeed, it dates from the 1979 revolution when Marxists, liberals, and secularists were prohibited from running in elections. Following the death of Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989, Islamic leftists were more or less excluded from campaigning, though there was some degree of viable competition between those factions that accepted the basic pillars of the Islamic Republic, namely republicanism and Islamism.

The agenda of the 6th Parliament did not comport with the preferences of the Supreme Leader. The Parliament and Supreme Leader differed over, among other things, human rights and nuclear policy. As a result, most of the Reformist candidates (2,500), including 80 members of the 6th Parliament, were disqualified from running for seats in the 7th. That number has grown to approximately 3,000,[3] including Reformist MPs. The Speaker of the Guardian Council, which is responsible for overseeing the parliamentary elections, acknowledged that the 6th Parliament’s protest, which entailed holding a sit-in, is one of the Council’s reasons for disqualifying some candidates.[4] Holding a sit-in is not an unconstitutional action. This obviously illegal action is a blatant method of blocking rivals of the clerics’ regime.

Another important issue for this election is security. Most reformists have stated their concerns as to how safe the election will be. Besides employing illegal methods of collecting votes, such as buying votes or using paramilitary staff in favor of a particular candidate, it is common for the Guardian Council to annul some or all of the votes of certain districts in order to support the candidates who are allied with the fundamentalists. For instance, during the 6th Parliamentary election, the Guardian Council annulled 700,000 out of almost 2,000,000 votes from the Tehran district to bock the nationalist-religious candidate, ‘Ali Reza Rajai, in favor of the current Speaker of Parliament, Hadad Adel. Thus, in this 8th Parliamentary election, although reformist groups — the most significant rivals of the fundamentalists — could introduce reformist candidates, the annulment process of the Guardian Council could just as quickly knock them out of the race. 

Although we can predict that an absolute majority of the 8th Parliament will be fundamentalist, it is likely that the fundamentalist candidates who are aligned with President Mahmud Ahmadinejad may lose the election, because the voting public is disappointed that he has not kept his campaign promises. 

This trend also shows that the Supreme Leader Ayatollah ‘Ali Khamene’i wants absolute power plus all three branches of government in line and loyal to him and his agenda. The primary purpose of holding the parliamentary elections process is to prevent any real change of people in positions of power. At the same time, however, the Supreme Leader needs to maintain at least the appearance of holding elections in order to maintain the constitutional mandate for parliamentary elections as well as to showcase democracy to the rest of the world. For the sole purpose of putting on a show, the authorities speak to international organizations and media to boast about how free and fair elections in Iran are. For instance, the Secretary General of the Supreme National Security Council delivered a lecture on free elections in Iran to the EU Parliament recently.

Iranian elections are not free and fair because most of the nation’s willing candidates are excluded from running. Reformist politicians were unsuccessful in their negotiations with the Supreme Leader to stop the banning of reformist candidates. Indeed, it seems that Iranian activists and politicians can do little to defend the right to free and fair elections due to the suppression of civil society. They need international support. Given that the regime uses international organizations and treaties to promote their mission, those who support the holding of free and fair elections in Iran should activate those same international tools. Here the United Nations’ potential role in the promotion of democracy is very important. 

The UN General Assembly has adopted a Resolution for Promoting and Consolidating Democracy which serves this very purpose. Proponents of free and fair elections in Iran should push for UN oversight of the entire Iranian elections process: “The objectives of United Nations electoral assistance are essentially two-fold: (I) to assist Member States in their efforts to hold credible and legitimate democratic elections in accordance with internationally recognized criteria established in universal and regional human rights instruments; and (II) to contribute to building the recipient country’s institutional capacity to organize democratic elections that are genuine and periodic and have the full confidence of the contending parties and the electorate.”[5]  In addition, the European Union and other countries that have relatively good relations with Iran can, and should, seek to influence Tehran’s policy regarding free and fair elections. More generally, international organizations should propose a new protocol in order to promote and strengthen free elections everywhere.



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