In local elections marked by low turnout, Iranian President Mohammed Khatami's reformist agenda suffered a serious setback. The results have bolstered the influence of conservative political forces in an ongoing struggle for control over Iran's development agenda.
Since 1997, when Khatami won the presidency, reformist forces had enjoyed repeated success at the ballot box, providing the modernizers with momentum as they battled to overcome conservative resistance to change. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Over the past two years, though, conservative resistance stiffened and largely succeeded in stalling Khatami's reform drive.
The February 28 vote confirms a shift in momentum back to the conservatives. In the most closely watched local vote, official results gave 14 of 15 city council seats in Tehran to the Developers of an Islamic Iran Coalition. This political movement describes itself in campaign materials as a defender of "the Islamic Revolution [of 1979]" and an enemy of "materialistic people, groups and parties."
The core of conservative opposition in Iran rests in the Guardian Council, an unelected 12-member body, composed of clerics and a lawyer, which can veto any law that in its estimation fails to reflect Islamic principles.
Just as significant as the strong showing of conservative candidates is evident voter apathy, which underscores broad public discontent with Khatami's administration. Prior to the vote, political analysts viewed the local elections as a test of Khatami's strength. By declining to vote in Tehran and other large cities, urban Iranians expressed disillusionment with the reform effort.
Precise turnout figures were not immediately available. According to various estimates, however, turnout in Tehran ranged from 10 percent to 25 percent. Reformist-leaning political observers maintain that the elections results, especially in Tehran, were more a vote of no confidence in Khatami's administration than a conservative triumph.
Overall, voters selected new members of 905 city councils and over 34,000 village councils across Iran. Over 41 million Iranians were eligible to vote in the elections. Over 25 million eligible voters reportedly did not vote. Turnout was higher in rural areas than in cities, some observers said.
Khatami's legislative agenda now appears endangered. On March 4, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei criticized the candidacies of some reformers, who he classified as dissidents. This prompted speculation that the Guardian Council might reject two bills that Khatami introduced in September 2002. One would curtail the Supreme Leader's power, while the other would restrict the hardliners' authority to block candidates from standing in future elections. [For more information, see the Eurasia Insight archives].
Khatami clearly sees a threat to his program. "This election gives a troubling message about the people's desires for the future of the Islamic Republic of Iran," he said on March 3. Some reformists say the president has reason to worry. "We're very frustrated with the reform movement," said an Iranian journalist who asked for anonymity. "The Iranian people supported the president in every election since 1997 and they never got the results they wanted. By not showing up to vote they are sending a warning to the reformists about the legitimacy of their regime."
Some reform supporters also sought to portray the low turnout as an indictment against conservative control of many of the country's institutions. "The Islamic regime insists that voting is a religious duty," said an Iranian journalist who identified himself as Ashrafi. "Well, isn't this election a crisis for the legitimacy of the Islamic regime?" Young Iranians in particular appear doubtful that their country is on track to develop democratic institutions.
One factor promoting voter cynicism is the recent high-profile imprisonment of dissident journalists. Reporters Without Borders, an international watchdog organization, noted on March 3 that the conservative forces had engineered the arrests of five prominent journalists between February 26 and March 1. Khatami's inability to stop these arrests has weakened his image, say observers. Ahmad Zeidabadi, a reformist journalist who says he was tortured while serving a jail term in 2002, said: "a gap has formed between the people who are making demands and the reformists [in government]. It appears that they can no longer complement each other."
In a report released in January, Reporters Without Borders described Iran as "the biggest jail for journalists in the Middle East."
With less than a year left before parliamentary elections, the reform camp appears in disarray. However, Khatami's many supporters in the current parliament appear determined to mount a fresh effort to overcome conservative opposition. On March 5, a pro-Khatami MP, Ali Shakouri-Rad, said reformists may attempt to bypass the Guardian Council by submitting the two controversial bills for a national referendum. "These two bills are the last hope for Khatami," a person close to the president told EurasiaNet. "Unfortunately, we might see a big explosion."
Camelia Entekhabi-Fard is a freelance journalist specializing in Iranian and Afghan affairs.