Monday, February 23, 2004

Dark times, part one

To no one's surprise, the reactionaries have retaken control of majlis, the Iranian parliament. The outcome was never in doubt after the Guardian Council succeeded in tossing out the candidacies of over 2,000 reformers. By the time of Friday's elections, fewer than 250 veteran reformers could be found among the 4,500 candidates. As a result,
[c]onservatives took at least 149 places in the 290-seat parliament, which has been controlled by pro-reform lawmakers since their landslide win four years ago. Reformers and self-described independents won about 65 seats, according to Interior Ministry figures. The final count was expected Tuesday,
AP reported.

It's hard to measure the effect of the reformists' call for a boycott of the elections. The turnout, according to the Interior Ministry, was just over 50% nationwide, the lowest in any general election since the 1979 Islamic revolution; in Tehran, only about 1/3 of voters turned out. Those figures represent a significant drop since the last round of elections, when nationwide participation was at just over 67% and that in Tehran a little under 50%. However, they're also higher than reformers hoped and conservatives feared; reformers had hoped to keep the national turnout below 40%. The boycott effort was undoubtedly hindered by differences in the ranks of reformers, some of who, like President Khatami, openly urged people to vote, and by a massive PR campaign by conservatives who said it was a "religious duty" to go to the polls. And it may also represent disillusionment with the inability of reformers to deliver on their promises because of opposition from the unelected clerical bodies that still hold the levers of power.

In any event and despite the reduced turnout, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei called it a "national and an Islamic epic in the true meaning." Reformers, however, called it an "historical fiasco." Indeed, reformist lawmaker Rasoul Mehrparvar went so far as to say that hardliners will face God's punishment.
"I hope you will be questioned on Judgment Day before God because you are not responsive to the people in this world," he said, addressing the head of the Guardian Council, which was responsible for the mass disqualification of liberal candidates.
In the midst of this, some are trying to put the best face on the outcome. There are, for example, predictions of splits in the conservative block. The Christian Science Monitor considers that possibility:
Among the conservatives, two factions - hard-line and moderate - are already gearing up for the new tug of war. But amid a cascade of uncertainties and mixed signals, Iran's political future is far from clear.

Many reformist Iranians predict renewed repression, and point to the closure of two reformist newspapers on the eve of the vote as a sign of things to come. But others argue that moderates will prevail and embrace key elements of the reform agenda.

"This is the point where the usefulness of hard-liners is over," says Amir Mohebian, a director of the conservative newspaper Resalat. "They will endeavor to stay in [control], but their time is over. The new mission belongs to moderate conservatives.

"Hard-liners are like dynamite: You can destroy things with them, but can't build things," adds Mr. Mohebian.
Even if the victory of moderate conservatives over extreme conservatives does come to pass, a victory that I think will not mean reform as we would understand the term but could mean more tolerance for some openness of expression both politically and personally - that is, not letting go of the reins of power but holding them somewhat more loosely - it will still be a long and hard road and one on which I think those "moderates" will find they need the help of the very reformers they cooperated in ousting.

Footnote: The Guardian Council has accused the Interior Ministry of "playing with figures" to lower the turnout rate, the BBC reported on Monday. Interior put the nationwide turnout at just over 50%, but the Council says the real figure is closer to 60%. Apparently, reformers aren't the only ones trying to put the best possible face on things.

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