Saturday, March 15, 2008

Iran's Elections

By Cernig

Iran's parliamentary election results are coming in - and it looks like despite a massive attempt at rigging the vote in favor of conservatives, more reformists than expected will win seats. More, there are signs of deep splits in conservative ranks.
TEHRAN (Reuters) - Conservatives took an early lead in an election for Iran's 290-seat parliament with 108 seats to 33 for their reformist opponents, Iran's state Press TV said on Saturday, citing unofficial results so far.

Friday's election was seen as likely to keep conservatives in control of parliament, while adding more voices critical of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's economic policies.

Many reformists, seeking political and social change and trying to capitalise on public discontent over inflation, were blocked from standing in the polls.

Conservative politician Shahabeddin Sadr said 70 percent of winners so far were "principlists" -- a label conservatives use to describe their loyalty to the Islamic Republic's ideals. He did not say how many seats had been decided.

Sadr is the secretary of the United Front, the biggest and most pro-government conservative group, which confusingly includes both backers and critics of Ahmadinejad.

Sadr, quoted by the state's IRNA news agency, said most of the "principlists" elected were United Front candidates.

Even if conservatives keep the upper hand in parliament, some reformists expected Ahmadinejad to face sharper scrutiny.

"The president will face more challenges with the next parliament than he did with the current one," said Mohammad Ali Abtahi, a close ally of reformist ex-President Mohammad Khatami.

An Iranian political analyst, who asked not to be named, also predicted that the next parliament would give Ahmadinejad a rougher ride. He said splits had opened up among conservatives jockeying for position before the 2009 race for the presidency.

A senior reformist politician said reformists, despite the hurdles, had done well in cities. He forecast they would win 50 to 70 seats, up from about 40 that they held before.
Reformists also say they'll be able to form alliances with independents and dissatisfied conservatives to pressure Ahmadinejad's government. This despite the fact that hardline international pressure has been widely acknowledged to have played to the conservative's nationalist strengths. The economy's troubles have trumped both nationalist drum-banging and, to an extent, gerrymandering of the election in favor of the conservatives.

That vote-rigging is what's being concentrated on by the US in official statements - further playing into Iranian conservative's hands. While it is doubtless true that Iranian votes are "cooked' as far as possible beforehand, it's hardly appropriate for the Western nation with the highest bar to entry for its own national elections - belong to one of the big two parties, be bigtime independently wealthy, or forget it - to be saying so. Maybe next time the U.S. could leave such pronouncements to an ally such as the UK where the entry bar is nowhere near as high.

But I digress. These current elections, I think, show that Ahmadinejad has problems in the run up to his re-election bid next year. Influential conservatives like former nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani - who won a seat in Qom - oppose his nuclear truculence even as the ailing Grand Ayatollah apparently backs it. The economy is a mess, with massive inflation and deficit spending despite oil revenue windfalls, which is causing further splits in the conservative camp. A reformist is in charge of the council which will pick the next Grand Ayatollah and there's a fair chance they might be doing so soon. Finally, it's going to be harder this time around to keep reformist presidential candidates off the ballot and still keep a lid on public dissent. I have a feeling that the close of 2009 will see a new Iranian president in place, perhaps one who is more amenable to negotiation and less given to overblown rhetoric.

(Postscript - it should be understood that by "reformists" I mean comparatively moderate politicians. In Iran, no real moderate by, say, European standards gets anywhere near the ballot. Mind you, some would say that's true of the US too.)

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