Vote to test unity of Iran’s conservatives

Virtual absence of the reformists pits increasingly divided conservatives against each other in assembly elections.

Iran elections
Control of the assembly is crucial to President Ahmadinejad’s plans to return for a third term [Reuters]

Punctuality was never the strength of Mehdi Sanayee and Rohullah Husainian, the most “undisciplined” members of Iran’s outgoing parliament. Respectively, they showed up 3,513 and 3,469 minutes late in total during their four-year term.

By publishing an exhaustive three-part evaluation of the performance of the parliamentarians, a group calling themselves The Student Justice Movement hopes to promote better-informed voting on March 2, when Iranians take to the polls to elect the 290 members of the ninth Islamic Consultative Assembly.

Like any other election, the performance of the incumbents in the eyes of their constituencies and the local economic frustrations play a decisive role. But analysts believe that Iran’s parliamentary vote, sandwiched between two pivotal presidential elections, is as much a gauge of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s dwindling political support – and his future prospects – as it is a power-struggle between the different factions of the coalition of conservatives that he belongs to.

A good turnout in the election, the first since large protests after the 2009 presidential vote threatened to drag the country into chaos, could provide a boost for the regime slapped with sanctions, and under tremendous pressure, domestically as well as internationally.

This is an election in which various wings of principlism – traditional, pragmatic, and hard-line – are trying to position themselves vis-a-vis each other.

– Farideh Farhi

In the lead up to the vote, Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Leader, has repeatedly stressed the importance of a high turnout to counter conspiracies from the “enemy”, an elusive term that keeps expanding in scope.

“The enemy’s propaganda machines and the media of arrogant circles have begun an extensive effort so that the assembly election is without splendour,” the 72-year-old said.

“But all should know that the people’s participation in the elections will take the country forward … an election full of excitement will be a major blow to the enemy.”

Following revelations of major banking fraud, Majid Zavari, a Tehran-based political analyst, said the economy and the persistent unemployment would be pivotal issues in the election.

“From one end, Iranian society is facing high unemployment, particularly among educated youth who, despite university degrees, do not have decent living standards. This has increased discontent amongst people,” Zavari told Al Jazeera.

“On the other hand, the high inflation rate and financial corruption has increased the pressure on lower classes. Neglecting these problems can bring about extensive crisis like what we witnessed in the Arab revolutions.”

No rival to unite

As per vetting procedures, the Guardian Council, a 12-member body of mostly clerics that has veto power over the parliament, has disqualified nearly 30 per cent of those who registered, among them 35 incumbents.

The reformist parties, who took to the streets for extensive protests following the 2009 presidential elections, remain virtually out of the race, with their leaders, most prominently Mir Hossein Mousav and Mehdi Karroubi, reportedly still under house arrest. Individual candidates with reformist leanings will campaign, but no official list of candidates has been submitted by the reformist coalition.

The election, essentially, has turned into a power struggle between the increasingly divided coalition of conservatives, named the Usulgarayan, meaning “the principlists”.

“This is an election in which various wings of principlism – traditional, pragmatic, and hard-line – are trying to position themselves vis-a-vis each other,” Farideh Farhi, an affiliate graduate faculty member at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, told Al Jazeera.

“I seriously doubt any of them will come out of this election stronger, since the process has, so far, led to even more splintering of the factions.”

The rivalries for local seats and the absence of an unified opposition has seemingly turned the focus inwards.

Dr Amir Mohebian, a conservative political activist and strategist, told local media: “If there is one enemy, one rival, then we [the conservatives] unite. And if this external factor decreases, our internal differences increase.”

Ahmadinejad’s plan

President Ahmadinejad’s recent public falling out with Khamenei, the Supreme Leader, has alienated certain some conservative factions, and has possibly cost his circle the religious vote.

Among other issues of contention was the messy argument over Ahmadinejad’s appointment of long-time confidant and his son’s father-in-law, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, as the first vice president of the country. Khamenei vehemently opposed the appointment of Mashaei, a pragmatic conservative who once, much to the abhorrence the ultra-conservatives, said “the era of Islamism has reached its end“.

But Ahmadinejad refused to back down. Eventually, in what seemed like a compromise move, Mashaei resigned as vice president and took up the role of the president’s chief of staff.

Ahmadinejad’s backing of Mashaei alienated many conservatives [AP]

Many believe that Ahmadinjad, who cannot run for a third consecutive term, is grooming Mashaei to be a “gap president” that will leave the door open for his return, similar to the suspected arrangement between Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev in Russia.

“After their second term, all our presidents have been inclined to have a temporary government serve as a bridge for them, a government that is aligned with their government and prepare the opportunity for their return,” Mohebian said.

“Different groups of Ahmadinejad’s supporters are trying to pave the way for victory in presidential elections by controlling the assembly. Mr Mashaei is considered the likeliest of candidates for the presidency,” says Zavari.

But Farhi believes Ahmadinejad will have a difficult time electing a president “under his influence”, and that task will be more difficult if the controversial Mashaei is his choice.

“Mashaei will simply be disqualified in the next presidential election given his identification with the so-called ‘deviant current’,” referring to a term conservative media uses to describe government circles who are allegedly sidelining the clergy.

The controversy surrounding Mashaei was the tipping point, but Ahmadinejad’s problems with his own conservatives go back to his final days as the mayor of Tehran, as he prepared to be the conservative candidate for the presidency.

Other contenders in the 2005 election against Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the former president who ran for a third term after a gap, included Ali Larijani, the current speaker of the parliament, and Akbar Velayati, an influential confidant of Khamenei.

After offering to tip Ahmadinejad for the candidacy, many conservatives announced their support for Mohamed Baqer Qalibaf, the country’s powerful police chief, said conservative stratgist Mohebian. They argued that Qalibaf, after six years as police chief, was better positioned to bring in the votes.

“I think Ahmadinejad has never forgiven them, because when the central committee of your own party puts you forward and then leaves you in the cold, it is an unpardonable action from Ahmadinejad’s view,” Mohebian said.

Ahmadinejad, campaigning on a populist platform that appealed to the religious, military members and the poor, and with reported backing from Khamenei – who had a cold relationship with his rival, Rafsanjani – managed to win the 2005 vote.

But Ahmadinejad’s relationship with the conservatives only grew colder.

Darioush Qanbari, a reformist member of the parliament, said that the actions of Ahmadinejad’s government – for example, his 11-day absence from cabinet meetings in protest for Khamenei reinstating a minister he had sacked – has caused serious differences within the conservatives, who consider the government deviating from their principles of revolutionary conservatism. 

“Conservatives do not see the actions of the government in accordance with the teachings of conservatism. And today, parts of their current have separated their ways to revive conservatism,” Qanbari told local media.

The result of the parliamentary elections will help to a large extent in understanding the current situation and predicting the presidential elections

– Magid Zavari

Some fear that Ahmadinejad’s tensions with other factions of the conservative coalition might force him to deploy government resources in influencing the assembly elections.

Mohebian, the conservative strategist, says previous presidents have tried to influence the assembly elections through groups and parties close to them – without “systematic” government involvement. But Ahmadinejad finds himself in an awkward position, trying to exert influence while lacking an official political party and growing increasingly sceptical of the coalition that brought him to power.

“Some are putting forward the ideas that the government might use their political and administrative structures like a political party in the elections … but we have to judge this based on evidence, and I have not seen any yet,” Mohebian said.

The divisions amongst the conservatives are not limited to the actions of Ahmadinejad. They accuse people such as Larijani, the speaker of the parliament, of promoting “silent intrigue” for not actively speaking out against the 2009 protests.

The parliamentary election will manifest the dominant currents among the divided conservatives. Many factions will likely determine whether or not to file a candidate for the presidency based on the support they draw in this parliamentary vote.

“The result of the parliamentary elections will help to a large extent in understanding the current situation and predicting the presidential elections,” analyst Zavari said.

Follow Mujib Mashal on Twitter: @mujmash

Source: Al Jazeera