In Iran, the twin elections for the parliament and the Expert Assembly (formally in charge of choosing the next supreme leader) are on the way this week, reflecting the evolution of Iran’s Islamist deliberative democracy. In political science, the latter refers to a participatory and pluralistic system based on debates and discussion of public issues.(1)
Along with Iraq, Turkey, and Afghanistan, the electoral process in Iran has a definite regional dimension that contributes to and deepens the democratic trend on a regional scale, considered a threat to the archaic tribal system of Saudi Arabia and other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Ironically, some of these states, who have successfully insulated themselves from the recent democratization effects of the (now failed) Arab Spring, champion the cause of democracy and elections in Syria. But, this aside, a respectful turnout of voters (i.e. more than 60 percent) and the absence of major, and credible, complaints about any election irregularities, as was the case in the 2009 presidential race, will undoubtedly contribute to the legitimacy of Iran’s political system in the brand new post-nuclear accord era.
After all, this is the first time in the history of the Islamic Republic that elections are transpiring in a non-emergency environment, given the enormous pressures of wars and the state of pre-war imposed by the decade-long nuclear crisis and its assortments of punitive sanctions, cyberwarfare, overt threats of military strike (by US and Isreal), proxy attacks and assassinations, etc. Thanks to the nuclear accord known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the leaf has turned for the better in Iran’s external environment, allowing the country a big sigh of relief after the pile up of years of oppressive external pressures and the related deprivations.
Needless to say, economically speaking, it is still to early to see the fruits of successful nuclear diplomacy that has ended a bulk of the Western sanctions on Iran and allowed the country’s leaders to embark on a new chapter of expanding economic relations with various western and eastern nations. A chief complaint of the Iranian electorate is economic in nature and there is consensus among most candidates running for a parliamentary seat that unemployment, inflation, and other economic issues are top priorities that need central focus by the next parliament (Majlis), which has to approve next year’s budget (in Iranian calendar) as well as the sixth 5-year plan, both of which are based on petro dollars higher than the current depressed prices. This is not to mention the costly, politically-wise yet economically-cumbersome subsidies, which the government has pledged to continue, even though by some officials’ admission, it is increasingly difficult to keep the promise. As a result, a fiscal crisis of state looms that requires bold actions, such as raising direct taxes, perhaps as a part and parcel of more comprehensive structural economic reforms.
A glance at the electoral map in Iran today, featuring over 6200 candidates for the 290 seat parliament, on the whole it is possible to recognize four cluster of candidates, namely, the hard-liners known as the principalists (osool-garayan), the reformists (eslah-talaban), the pro-government centerists known as moderates (etedaliun), and the independents; the latter are the unkown and their entry in the race is simultaneously both a clue to the system’s relative openness as well as its defects, due to the absence of firm criteria to weed out the unqualified candidates. A comprehensive reform of the elections law in Iran is seriously over due, partly to address this particular issue, in light of some 12000 entrants to the parliamentary race, almost half of whom were filtered out by the overseeing Guardian Council.
With respect to the Principalists, who competed against themselves in the 2013 presidential race and lost partly as a result of their disunity, there is concern among them that history might repeat itself unless some forfeit the race in favor of their like-minded competitors. Although the Principalists are likely to re-emerge as the dominant faction in the next Malis, it is less clear what their script for action on various economic and social issues consists of. Chances are they will fine tune their vision of what is referred to as “resistant economy,” which must be done in tandem with the post-JCPOA new openings to the West. There is a disjunction between economic progress and “resistant economy” based on stale ideas of a closed economy, that needs to be addressed in order to render that term truly meaningful in tune with the requirements of new dynamism in trans-border relations. The Principalists might want to lessen Iran’s oil-dependency by reforming the tax laws, so that the government expenditures for social services and investment priorities can be sustained. But, to do so would require standing up to a mass constituency, centered in bazaars, which has historically been resistant to tax modernization.
The reformist camp, on the other hand, sees this election as an opportunity for an orderly and gradual re-entry in the political process, given the huge political setbacks following the 2009 presidential fiasco that landed many reformist politicians in jail, many of whom have since then recanted and have come to openly admit their errors of judgment, etc.
Indeed, this is a litmus test for the reformists, who are still reeling by the significant erosion of their political capital over the past six years, given their boycott of the previous Majlis elections and their re-grouping and the rise of “new reformists” keen on avoiding the past errors. It is, of course, easier said than done and the reformist camp suffers from both a vision deficit as well as leadership deficit, which can be compensated overtime by pursuit of a gradualist approach toward recuperating politically in the new post-JCPOA environment, which calls for attraction of foreign investment, privatization, legal reform to unfetter the “internal sanctions” imposed by bureaucracy and the like. Concerning the latter, President Hassan Rouhani has called for “JCPOA 2” at home, signifying the need to reach a new political compact at home, that is a sine qua non for steady economic progress.
In fact, Rouhani’s centerist position is somewhat ideal to decrease the political tensions and gravitate the various factions toward the government, which is why so far the Rouhani administration has had a fairly decent working relationship with the Parliament, partly due to the good political chemistry between Rouhani and the conservative MP from the holy city of Qom, Ali Larijani. But, perhaps Larijani has moved too close toward Rouhani, which might explain the conspicuous absence of his name on the Principalist list of candidates from Qom.
On the other hand, the list of supporters of government (hamiyan-e dowlat) contains both moderate principalists as well as moderate reformists, who count on the political synthesis of the Rouhani administration, even though it lacks any overt concessions to the reformist camp, which has in turn triggered certain misgivings toward Rouhani by Iran’s reformists, who are nowadays led by a former vice-president Mohammad Reza Aref, who is closely identified with the former reformist president, Mohammad Khatami. Another reformist intellectual, Said Hajjarian, has penned a message to his camp emphasizing the “normalization” process of this particular election, hoping the “rationality process” will eventually work to their benefit.
In the West, on the other hand, cynical dismissal of the Iran elections as barely more than window-dressing can be found aplenty. Case in point, Suzanne Maloney and Ray Takeyh, both former US government officials now at key US think tanks, have questioned the importance of these elections in terms of shifting the balance of power, arguing that key leadership and other issues are made by a few ruling elite in back-rooms. But, the problem with such rather superficial prognostications of Iran’s evolving deliberative democracy is the underestimation of the dynamic electoral process that moves some of the political tectonics in Iran’s political system, albeit in slow motion and contingent on the net outcome of election results. Nor do these western analysts give due credit to the procedural democracy and the deepening of the democratic ethos as a result of each round of competitive and pluralist elections that afford a new opportunity for political self-expression on the part of candidates and masses of voters alike.
Fact is that the new political system in Iran is not even forty years old, replacing many centuries of monarchical despotism, and there is still a trial and error about certain aspects of it. Some of the shortcomings of the electoral process are procedural in nature, such as the delay in electronic tabulation of votes, turned down by the Guardian Council this year, perhaps for the last time, and the lack of fit between the voting districts and the official national distributions, not to mention the individualistic nature of the campaigns and the need for a more advanced method of integrating party politics into the electoral process. Unfortunately, party politics in Iran continues to remain rather retarded and that, in turn, chips away at the ability of the Majlis as a whole to perform its legislative and oversight functions in an optimal fashion.
Although the Majlis functions through various committees and ad hoc fractions, it still lags behind in terms of firm party-based coalitions that could become the basis for a more muscular Majlis input on key domestic and foreign affairs. Yet, despite its shortcomings, the Majlis remains a key institution of the Islamic Republic, that is now unhinged from the chariot of crippling sanctions and sailing in the new direction of constructive engagement with the outside world, a whole new chapter in the hitherto tumultuous history of the post-revolutionary order that requires certain ideological adjustments as well. But, as in all post-revolutionary societies, the latter raise issues of identity and authenticity, that need to be tackled with utmost care and sensitivity, otherwise they will endanger a whole new set of headaches associated with ideological disorientation. Change and continuity must inevitably go hand in hand and in delicate balance with each other, to ensure the steady evolution of Iran’s Islamist deliberative democracy.