The campaign for Iran’s next parliamentary campaign will not start officially until a couple of weeks before the poll in March 2008, but rising political temperatures in Tehran suggest the battle has already begun.
Conservative websites have been running a video allegedly showing former president Mohammad Khatami, still a leading reformist, shaking hands with women. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, under criticism over his economic management, has removed two important ministers to give fresh direction to his government. And the judiciary has once again banned Shargh, the lively reformist daily newspaper that regularly lampooned the president and his allies.
The attacks on Mr. Khatami show Iran’s conservatives are firmly on the defensive, says Mohammad Ali Abtahi, a vice-president when Khatami led Iran through an eight-year reformist era between 1997 and 2005.
“They have realized there is a chance he could run again in the 2009 presidential elections,” says Abtahi, who backs the idea. “But that’s two years away, and first we must pass the test of the Majlis [parliament] election.”
Conservative nerves over the Majlis poll result from the united front put forward by the reformists last December in elections both for local councils and for the Khobregan, or Assembly of Experts, the clerical body that chooses and supervises Iran’s supreme leader.
Drawing up common center-left lists for the parliamentary election is being entrusted to regular meetings of Khatami, the former parliamentary speaker Mehdi Karrubi, and the influential former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who has gravitated towards the reformist camp because of his alarm at the policies and behavior of Ahmadinejad.
But the conservatives still say they are confident of keeping a majority — albeit a reduced one — in the 290-seat parliament.
Amir Mohebian, the wily political editor of Resalat, the conservative daily newspaper, believes the reformists’ chances are also hampered by a failure to go beyond calls for social freedom, and by their concentration on big cities rather than smaller towns and villages. “Tribal and family factors remain important in much of the country and usually decide who is elected,” he says.
Mohebian, a keen reader of Nicolo Machiavelli, sees the ageing of baby-boomers born in the early years after the 1979 Islamic Revolution as a key factor in Iranian politics — and one that naturally favors the conservatives.
“When voters are 17 or 18, they care about self-esteem and freedom of speech,” he says. “When they’re 25 to 26 they want new policies about daily life — marriage, getting a home and so on. As people age, they naturally become more conservative.”
Karrubi surprised many fellow reformists by running his presidential campaign in 2005 on a simple promise to give everyone above 15 a monthly pay-out of 50,000 tomans (just over $50) from Iran’s growing oil revenue. But even though he came within 700,000 votes of beating Mr. Ahmadinejad into the second round run-off, the reformists have been slow to develop policies on day-to-day economic issues.
“In politics, you must choose your customers, and in a democracy this means the ordinary people — the reformists’ slogans about social freedoms are still for the elites,” says Mohebian.
Another problem for the reformists is that their energies are being lost in worrying over their candidates being blocked by the Guardian Council, a constitutional body that vets hopefuls. Precedents are mixed. The last parliamentary election in 2004 saw mass disqualifications, but in the presidential election of 2005, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader, intervened to allow two reformists run after the council disqualified them.
“We have two problems — disqualifications and the fear of disqualifications,” says Abtahi. “We are looking for well-known people. But those who are unlikely to be disqualified are often those least keen on facing character assassination — this results from the film of Khatami [shaking hands with women].”
A competitive election could encourage a high turnout, which would be an important boost for Iran as it faces growing international pressure led by the United States over its controversial nuclear program. The last Majlis election saw around 51% of eligible voters at the polls, despite calls from some reformists for a boycott, although the turnout was only 18% in Tehran.
Turnout in the keenly fought presidential election two years ago was 63%, which Iranian analysts pointed out was comfortably higher than the 55% of eligible Americans who voted in the US presidential poll of 2004, which gave George W. Bush his second term.
But while March’s parliamentary election will be fought primarily on domestic and even local issues, the international situation remains an imponderable. Further sanctions from the UN and unilateral measures from the US might encourage voters to back the reformists, who have advocated a more cautious approach, but they might just just as easily favor the conservatives who can more easily easily wrap themselves in the flag.