February elections will be important ‘marker’ for Iran

Friday 22/01/2016
Iranian former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani registering for the upcoming Assembly of Experts elections.

Beirut - The vetting of candidates by Iran’s constitu­tional watchdog ahead of the February 26th elections for parliament and the Assembly of Experts will be a guide to the make-up of those institutions that could shape the future of the Islamic Republic, a leading Iran expert told The Arab Weekly in an interview.
The vote for the Experts Assembly is particularly significant, said Farideh Farhi, a lecturer at the University of Hawaii. This is not just because the 88 clerics elected may during their eight-year term exercise the assembly’s sole real function and choose a successor to 76-year-old Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as supreme leader.
The conduct of the election is equally as important, she said, because it will shape the future of the post of rahbar (“leader”) and of the leader’s office, beyt-e rahbari.
“There is potential for this election to become competitive for the first time,” said Farhi. “Some older clerics who in the past refused to stand because of their disdain for vetting have hinted they might run this time. Some younger clerics will run, including at least one of Ayatollah [Ruhollah] Khomeini’s grandsons [Hassan] who is close to the reformist camp.”
Farhi views Khamenei as an “institution builder” who has transformed the post of leader from the days of Khomeini, vastly extending its reach in politics and society.
“Ayatollah Khamenei’s legacy, like almost all other Middle Eastern leaders, will be shaped more by the way he departs than by what he has done as leader,” she said. “The extent to which the vast institution he has built — beyt-e rahbari, the leader’s ‘abode’ — is tied to his person isn’t yet clear,” she said.
“If it’s too closely tied to him then his parting will be destabilising and so will not reflect positively on his legacy. His office constitutionally stands at the core of the Islamic Republic and its primary role is to assure the sustenance and stability of the Islamic Republic even at the time of transition.”
Hence Farhi says that an Experts Assembly election without undue vetting of candidates by the Guardian Council could create a more representative, respected body better placed to “negotiate the transition to a new leader or perhaps even call for a leadership council”.
Given his sway over the 12-man Guardian Council, half of whose members he appoints and whose decisions he has sometimes overruled, Khamenei could help. “If this happens,” said Farhi, “then the path is paved for the eventual selection of a new leader who is personally less powerful but heads an institution that is more secure in the long run.”
Hence Farhi says the conduct of the election is as important as the results and as any debate over the qualifications supposedly required in a leader — something recently raised by Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the influential former president — and reflecting the dropping in 1989 of the requirement for the leader to be a pre-eminent cleric.
Farhi further says that February’s elections will be a marker — in one direction or another — in Iran’s uneven and often haphazard moves towards representative government since the revolution of 1905-07.
Doubts as to the worth of Iran’s electoral system increased with the disputed 2009 presidential vote, when two candidates, Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, denounced the results and thousands joined street protests. “At the most basic level,” said Farhi, “February’s two elections are important if they end up confirming that competitive electoral politics — within the confines of the Islamic Republic — have become critical in deciding the policy direction of the country as well as reshaping its balance of power.”
The 2009 protests were followed by a 2012 parliamentary vote when no turnout figures were announced after “many voters especially in urban areas, devastated by the 2009 election and the violence that ensued, simply stayed home assuming predetermined results”, she said.
But Farhi regards the 2013 presidential election as a turning point in that a 73% turnout showed Iranians again believed voting could make a difference. The victory of Hassan Rohani, she quickly wrote in an article Why Rohani? for the London Review of Books, came because “hope overcame cynicism”.
This sets the scene for February, she said: “A relatively high participation rate in large cities will confirm the perceived relevance of elections and, in effect, suggest that 2009 was an aberration and not the norm in the gradual institutionalisation of the electoral process as broker in Iran’s competitive and factionalised politics.”
Farhi left Iran in 1972 to study in the United States but has returned often, even during the 1980-88 war with Iraq. She spent most of the 1990s in posts in Iranian universities and has visited frequently since, recently making a six-week trip.
Farhi’s mix of on-the-ground experience, academic rigour and political acumen have made her not just a perceptive analyst of Iran’s complex politics but one of the few who maintains an open mind. The weeks leading up to February 26th may determine how open it remains.