Tehran's domestic politics are torn ahead of March election
The Iranian regime is at a crossroads. The parliamentary elections on March 2, 2012 are arguably one of the most consequential electoral events in the 32-year history of the Iranian theocracy. The legislative poll could serve as a barometer measuring the regime's legitimacy, assessing the state of its internal conflicts and projecting its political future. But what distinguishes this election from previous ones?
Part of the significance is timing. The upcoming poll will mark the first election since the uprising that followed the 2009 disputed presidential election. What Iranian leaders often referred to as the "pillar of the Islamic Republic", the electoral mandate, nearly became the cause of its undoing two years ago.
City council elections, slated for the winter of 2011, were postponed as the regime paved the ground to repress dissent, marginalise opponents and ponder the future.
It is precisely for this reason that from a security point of view, the 2012 vote is peculiar. Alarmist rhetoric of the ruling elite reveals the stress levels in Tehran. Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has openly called the March vote a potential "security challenge". His protégé, the minister of intelligence Heydar Moslehi, has described it as the "most sensitive elections in the history of the Islamic Republic".
The regime is now in a quandary. While it has traditionally boasted about high-voter participation as the symbol of its legitimacy, Tehran is increasingly concerned that an election boycott or turmoil could adversely affect its standing. In the wake of the Arab uprisings, the clerical regime is seeking to project an image of its power and popularity. If the election becomes a dismal affair, however, it will have the reverse effect.
Choreographing high voter turnout is an art that the Islamic Republic has mastered over the past three decades. Therefore, the pivotal issue at the crux of the next election is more than just a mere security threat. The political realignment that has been in the making for some time is likely to culminate on election day.
Following the public rift between President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the supreme leader in April of 2011, fissures among conservative factions have surfaced in an unprecedented way. Mr Ahmadinejad and his close associates have been under siege by the ruling apparatus over the past few months.
The tensions that have been brewing underneath the surface have now transformed into open political conflict. The infighting is not bred by ideology as the election platforms of the competing conservative factions are quite similar and their revolutionary vocabulary is identical. The current power struggle instead seems primarily about consolidating control over state resources.
With the reformist factions completely marginalised, the election battle will be confined to forces loyal to the president arrayed against followers of the supreme leader. While the president's camp pulls the strings of the ministry of interior, which is in charge of conducting the elections, the supreme leader's group controls the omnipotent Guardian Council that vets candidates and certifies the election results.
The 30th election since the 1979 revolution is not only about who commands the next parliament. Legislative elections have customarily paved the way for the ensuing presidential election. Mr Ahmadinejad's second and final term in office will come to an end in 2013. Therefore, rival factions are not only seeking to maximise their share of parliamentary seats, but are vying for the keys to the presidential palace.
Beyond signalling who may become the next president, the 2012 vote could be a litmus test for the country's political course. In October 2011, Ayatollah Khamenei hinted that the Iranian polity could alter from a presidential system to a parliamentary one in the future. The dysfunctional split structure of power in Iran could have prompted this decision.
Bitter arguments with the last three presidents has made the current system a problem for the supreme leader. Moreover, of the 20 elections held under Ayatollah Khamenei's tenure, presidential elections have been vexing. High voter turnout and unexpected electoral outcomes have proven to be a destabilising force and a liability for the regime.
In contrast, parliamentary elections, and more importantly the subsequent legislature, have become legally and practically subservient to Ayatollah Khamenei. If a change to the political system is in the cards - from a presidential system to a parliamentary one - the next members of parliament could enthrone or dethrone the next executive without reference to the popular vote.
Amid rising tensions with the West over its controversial nuclear programme, the Iranian government has already began its electoral process. Candidates from over 1,000 constituencies have registered to run for the 290 seats that are being contested.
The kaleidoscopic year of 2011 was marked with global uprisings against tyranny and injustice. As many states from the Middle East to Europe succumb to popular discontent and initiate change, Iran appears to be steering against the tide of history. Choosing repression over reform - a choice that could be reflected in this election - could prove fateful for the Iranian regime.
Yasmin Alem is an independent analyst on Iran and the author of Duality by Design: The Iranian Electoral
Updated: January 2, 2012 04:00 AM