Iran: elections without democracy

02 May 2013

In the run-up to 2013 Iran’s presidential elections, EFD Fellow, Wahied Wahdat-Hagh discusses the prospects for democracy in a country where Islamists keep maintaining control.

In totalitarian dictatorships diversity of opinion doesn’t exist. And so is the case in the Islamic Republic of Iran where all secular organizations and parties were eliminated at the beginning of the Islamic revolution of 1979.

Nevertheless, in keeping up appearances, presidential elections are to be held in that country on June 14th. There is an ‘inter-Islamist’ discussion about which Islamist candidate could serve the ruling leader Ali Khamenei in the best way. And that’s the gist of it; the candidates will not deviate from the ruling Islamic doctrine.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s term in office has come to an end; he can’t run again in June’s elections. Naturally, there is plenty of discussion about his potential successor and what might be surprising, considering the above, is that political disputes do still remain in this totalitarian dictatorship. While there is little in terms of true pluralism, ideological differences do exist as well as personalised competition between different Islamist interest groups. The deeper the regime galls into crisis, the harder this competition is fought. And it is no secret that the regime is currently in deep economic and political crisis.

Ahmadinejad has been routinely criticized because of his attempts to nationalise Islamism – to the extent where he had temporarily tolerated even the Hitler cult of Iranian Nazis. Ahmadinejad is a populist who has sought to bind Iranians who are tired of Islam to a mythical national form of Iranian Islamism. Islamist intolerance, supplemented by nationalist arrogance, has seen the aggressiveness of the ideological regime increase.

But Ahamdinejad won’t walk quietly. He wants to bring Esfandiar Rahim Mashai, his son’s father-in-law, to power. But there is a problem: the Principalists, an orthodox Islamic group of rulers, dislike Mashai, because of his belief that Iran requires a mix of Iranian and Islamic identity. The messianic period has begun, he says, and therefore the Iranians shall develop a new concept of nationalistic Iranian Islam. And it is this ideological assumption that is attacked by state clerics as a deviant drift.

HabibollahAsgarOladi, an orthodox politician, has even gone as far to speculate that Ahmadinejad wants to use Mashai to come back to power after six months. He suspects that Ahmadinejad wants to play Putin to Mashai’s Medvedev.

And yet Ahmadinejad’s ideological bent is only part of the reason behind his declining approval rating among peers; the failure of his economic strategy is worthy of note too. He is now criticised openly on state television: on April 14th an Iranian expert explained that, although Ahmadinejad’s government had oil revenues of $ 531 billion in the years between 2005-2012, Iranians actually got poorer as money was likely channeled into the nuclear programme and his rearmament policy.

Reformist Islamists under attack

Ahmadinejad is not alone since the reformists are under attack too. Influential ayatollahs warn that former President Mohammad Khatami, for example, will not get a chance again. Even his modest reform efforts were blocked during his tenure from 1997 to 2005.

Meanwhile, Ayatollah Mohammed TaghiMesbahYazdi warned reform-Islamists that they "have no chance of winning" and predicted that they "will certainly be disqualified." And as director of the Khomeini-Institute in Qom and a member of the Expert Council, which selects the "revolutionary leader", he has his finger on the pulse.

Some, such as Grand Ayatollah MakaremShirazi, have gone as far as to declare that reform-Islamists have no role to play whatsoever, even in the future. He said: "In the elections this year there are not two poles. The rivals come only from the Principalist camp.”

It’s difficult to say with any certainty whether others, like Ali Akbar Velayati, the former foreign minister responsible for the state terrorist attack at a Berlin restaurant, will have any chance of victory. Ultimately, who will emerge victorious is a long way from being clear.

But what is inescapable is that the Islamist elections have nothing to do with the democratic process. The controversies don’t reflect the political and social potential of Iran which has a wide range of seculars from left to right.

And as long as Islamists retain the consensus, that Sharia must be the basis of the state system, Iran’s seculars and any hope of democracy will remain in the shadows.

This article was originally published here.