x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

A cacophony of conservatives in Iran's orchestrated election

Iran's reformists have been bludgeoned off the streets, so tomorrow's elections is a game of musical chairs for the various fractious conservative factions.

A day before Iran's parliamentary elections, the country's political scene resembles a medieval papal conclave, with one major difference: the bickering and back-stabbing are not happening behind the curtains.

Having checkmated the reformists, discord in the conservative camp has produced unprecedented factional fissures. Dozens of conservative factions have broken apart, vying over the spoils of a country under the shadow of war. Although the Islamic Republic has experienced similarly precarious circumstances in the past, the stakes have never been so high.

Preparation for tomorrow's poll began much earlier than in previous elections. Concerned with security challenges in the first set of elections since the 2009 presidential vote and subsequent Green Movement protests, the ruling apparatus has attempted to reunite its loyal, but amorphous and fractured political backing.

Those efforts have been to no avail as more than 60 political fronts have emerged across the country, competing for the parliament's 290 seats. To further complicate matters, the electoral battle in this complex labyrinth is being fought on two different fronts.

On one side, forces loyal to the supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei are facing supporters of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The political elite's enmity towards Mr Ahmadinejad has pushed his presidency to the brink. After his public rift with the supreme leader, his supporters were labelled as "deviationists", coming under serious pressure. Worried about his political fate, Mr Ahmadinejad desperately needs a parliamentary victory.

His tactical choice has been to field candidates from small cities and rural areas where his main constituencies lie. Maintaining a low profile in the big cities to escape candidate disqualifications, the president's camp is using state resources to shift the electoral outcome in smaller cities and among lower-income families in its favour. The distribution of another round of subsidy cash handouts right before the elections is no coincidence. Notwithstanding these machinations, Ayatollah Khamenei, with extensive political and institutional instruments at his disposal, is well-positioned to foil Mr Ahmadinejad's plans.

On another level, a fierce competition is taking place among Ayatollah Khamenei loyalists, comprising traditional, moderate and radical conservatives. The traditional conservatives have deep roots in the clerical establishment and the bazaar, while the moderate conservative factions are mainly war-veteran technocrats. Although these groups have been united along with some hard-line conservatives under the banner of the United Principlist Front, the rivalry between them persists.

Radical conservatives mostly include individuals with roots in the security-intelligence apparatus who depend on the support of revolutionary institutions such as the Basij and Revolutionary Guards. They have coalesced under the banner of the Steadfast Front. There are also other players in this electoral game who lack well-defined political identities and have formed smaller coalitions.

On its face, the political stage appears chaotic. But the Iranian theocracy has always been a divisible polity. Ever since its inception, factionalism has constituted an integral part of electoral politics in the Islamic Republic.

In the early 1980s, Islamic groups from across the political spectrum joined forces to expel liberals and seculars from the parliament. Once victorious, they split into two opposing currents: conservatives and reformists. These two loosely defined groups came to define Iran's political landscape for the following two decades. With reformists, now labelled as "seditionists", marginalised from the political scene, the regime is again moulting.

What distinguishes the nature of competition today from the early decades of the revolution is that ideology is no longer the point of contention among competing factions. The contest is now for political power and control of diminishing state resources.

Positions, such as that of the speaker of parliament, are highly sought after. With growing prospects of institutional change in Iran's political system, the next speaker is likely to yield significant power in the "election", or selection, of the country's next executive-in-chief. Ali Larijani, the current speaker of parliament, and his predecessor, Gholamali Hadad Adel, have already signalled their bids for the position by engaging in negative campaigning against each other.

This political bedlam could be detrimental for a political system under economic hardship, international sanctions and shadow of war. Yet the ruling apparatus appears content with its electoral orchestration.

The number of political fronts and intense jockeying among them depicts the regime as a pluralistic and tolerant polity to the outside world. Given the long tradition of controlled competition in Iran, the chasms among conservative factions is unlikely to pose a threat to Ayatollah Khamenei's grip on power. Instead, in the absence of reformists, it will afford the conservative clan a much-needed means to adapt to the new realities of today's Iran.

After the brutal repression of the 2009 uprisings, many predicted that low voter participation would harm decision-makers in Tehran. A deep sense of political apathy coupled with calls for the boycott of elections by major reformist groups could bring a drastic drop in turnout. But the Iranian regime will likely cajole, buy and intimidate voters to ensure that the turnout meets the average bar of previous elections (60 per cent), or exceeds it.

The final results of the upcoming legislative elections will not be determined before the second round of voting is completed in April. The supreme leader seems to have choreographed the electoral arena in a way to seal Mr Ahmadinejad's fate, showcase the legitimacy of his regime and pave the way to appropriate all levers of power. Yet, given that Iranian politics is the realm of contingencies, it's too soon to pronounce him the victor.


Yasmin Alem is an independent analyst on Iran and the author of Duality by Design: The Iranian Electoral System. She can be reached at yasminalem@gmail.com