Saturday, February 14, 2004


With the February 20 elections rendered meaningless and leading reformist parties refusing even to participate in a bogus election with what amounts to a pre-determined outcome, reformers in Iran are beginning to consider their future, says the Christian Science Monitor for February 13.
Tehran, Iran - No political opponent ever accused Iran's youngest woman parliamentarian of mincing words - and she has strong ones for the hard-line conservatives who have engineered almost certain victory in next week's parliament vote.

The election campaign officially began Thursday, but Fatemah Haqiqat-Jou - along with some 2,500 other candidates - is barred from running by the unelected Guardian Council.

The freshly minted lawmaker first came to office in 2000 full of hope, imbued with ideals of justice and democracy, and backed by 1 million Tehran votes - part of a reformist landslide that ushered in a new generation of young leaders.

But today the collapsing dreams of Ms. Haqiqat-Jou, whom the Monitor first met on the campaign trail four years ago when she was 31, is emblematic of how hardliners in Iran have triumphed over the first reform parliament since Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution.
Haqiqat-Jou says she expects there will be arrests of prominent reformers in a wave of new repression after the election. "If [conservatives] win the majlis [Iran's parliament], reformists will be under even more pressure, and will have even more obstacles," says Haqiqat-Jou. She herself is facing a 10-month prison sentence for "insulting the Guardian Council" handed down by a notoriously hard-line prosecutor in August 2001.

Reformers have also begun considering what went wrong. In retrospect, the answer is clear: The levers of government remained in the hands of unelected bodies such as the Guardian Council, which held veto power over all acts of the majlis. Reformers swept into government convinced that the hardliners had "no choice" but to let parliament do its work, that is, to acknowledge the mandate. In other words, they treated their 2000 election victory as if it were the end of the struggle rather than a win in a major battle. That, bluntly, was foolish and they are now paying the price public discouragement.

But the reformers haven't given up or lost hope, even though they do recognize their position.
"There are two options: Either [conservatives] are destroyed, and finally destroy the Islamic system, or they change their behavior toward people," warns the soft-spoken deputy, who wears her many-layered chador with elegant ease.

"I believe in the proverb: 'Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely,'" says Haqiqat-Jou, narrowing unflinching eyes. "That is our main problem now." ...

"Reforms from within the state are impossible now," she says during an interview in the downtown offices of the main reform party, the Islamic Iran Participation Front (IIPF). The IIPF is boycotting the election. "They are not dead; the young generation is determined to find reforms, even if they take a different form."
One thing to watch for: In 2000, voter turnout was estimated at 83%. It will be interesting to see what claims are made for it this time.

Addendum: In a commentary written for the Daily Star (Lebanon), Afshin Molavi, author of Persian Pilgrimages: Journeys Across Iran, writes of his optimism for the future of reform in Iran.
In bookstores, pro-democracy tracts fly off the shelves, while books advocating the principles of the Islamic Republic gather dust. In villages and cities, I have heard people say: "Let the necktie-wearers come back," a reference to secular technocrats.... On campuses, democratic ideas dominate political thinking....

[T]he country's Islamic student unions, once a bastion of pro-Khomeini zealotry, serve as leading voices for democracy, with some embracing the vision of "Islamic democracy" as advocated by reformist President Mohammad Khatami; a growing number of people are calling outright for secular democracy - the total separation of religion and state.

But it's not just the students. In seminaries, a rising number of clerics publicly advocate the separation of religion and state, arguing that Khomeini's vision of clerical rule upended more than 1,000 years of classical Shiite tradition that prohibited the clergy from ruling the state. ...

As the Islamic Republic prepares to commemorate the anniversary of the revolution with the usual propaganda, Iranians ought to look back to a more relevant "revolution" in Iranian history: the 1906-11 constitutional revolution, Iran's first attempt at democratic reform. That era produced a constitution embracing democracy, secularism, women's rights and a strong Parliament. The movement was snuffed out by royalist reactionaries and foreign powers, but the dream of that movement -­ of a fair society based on just laws and of an independent, democratic, secular and prosperous Iran -­ has not died. It lives even stronger in Iran today.

That, in the end, might be the Islamic Revolution's most lasting legacy.
There is the danger here, as has been seen elsewhere, of looking to imitate the West too closely and coming to equate political freedom with globalized free-market capitalism. But for now, at least, the reformers seem focused on the freedom of people rather than the freedom of corporations. (The "necktie-wearers" were government economic managers.) If Molavi is right, while things look bleak in the short term, the victory of secular democracy over theocracy is a sure thing. While nothing in life is ever that sure, it helps keep hope alive to contemplate it.

Update February 15: According to the BBC, some 550 reformist candidates who had been qualified to stand in the elections have withdrawn. Turnout in the elections is expected to be low: a government poll predicts a turnout of only about 30%, compared to 83% in 2000. Some believe that in the cities, especially Tehran, the figure could be as low as 10%.

Hell, American municipal elections do that well.

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