In Iran, hopes for democracy dwindle

Reformers dispirited as candidates registered for parliamentary vote.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Once seen as the most vigorous democratic impulse in the Islamic world, Iran's reform movement is battling for political survival.

This week, candidates are registering for Iran's February parliamentary elections. But this first step in the process - conducted with perfect civility - belies a tumultuous political scene for reformists - including attacks on them by vigilantes - plus a growing apathy among voters.

The collapsing popularity of President Mohamad Khatami, and the stymied reform movement that he symbolizes, may result in the handover of Iran's parliament to conservatives - the same entrenched faction that has successfully blocked Mr. Khatami's efforts, say analysts here.

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"Reform is dead, and its leaders are not going to be [in the new parliament]," says Shirzad Bozorgmehr, deputy editor of the English-language Iran News. "That's going to anger a lot of people, because the conservatives will be stronger.

but it's going to be a fact of life."

One possible silver lining, some analysts say, is that a modest conservative victory might yield a less combative political atmosphere, and a parliament, or majlis, that can get something done. Hard-liners in both camps declare they can't work together. But the lessons of the reform experience - the clear desire for change that prompted three landslide elections victories for reformers since 1997, and the bursting bubble of their high expectations - is shaping moderates on both sides, and could lead to an alliance in parliament.

"The idea of reform has taken root, even though it has been diverted from its original path," says Bozorgmehr. "If the rightists don't fear anyone, and feel no threat from reformers, then they can afford to be magnanimous."

Frustration runs deep, however. The main reformist party, the Islamic Iran Participation Front (IIPF), has warned that it may call a boycott if its candidates are rejected in large numbers by the Guardian Council, an unelected conservative body that has heavily vetted candidates in the past. It is one lever of power in Iran, along with the judiciary and security forces, that remains in the hands of hard-liners. Targeted by such unelected bodies, some 100 reform newspapers have been shut down since 2000, and several key reform leaders are behind bars.

Last week in Geneva, Khatami said that democracy is the "only alternative." But the depth of conservative suspicion was clear in the response to those words by Ayatollah Ahmed Jannati, the hard-line Friday prayer leader, who told Iranians: "They are lying. Do not be fooled by them. Leave democracy alone."

Overshadowing the process are the demands of the Iran's youthful population, two-thirds of them under 30 years old, who have little recollection of the 1979 Islamic revolution - and sometimes want to challenge ruling clerics head-on.

A recent poll by the Tehran Medical University is reported to have found that 72 percent of respondents thought the reform process was over; 38 percent wanted Mr. Khatami to quit, and nearly a third wanted majlis deputies to resign.

"Khatami is forgotten - he's not an issue anymore," says a Western diplomat. "But the Khatami era made the reality of social change more open. There is an increasing gap between society and politics."

Reversing the subsequent apathy is proving difficult for both camps, though conventional wisdom is that less voters means more chances for conservatives. City council elections last February yielded just 12 percent turnout in Tehran (and more than 50 percent nationwide) - and a conservative victory.

That result "is an example people are very happy about these days," suggests Hussein Shariatmadari, a representative of Iran's supreme spiritual leader, and editor of the conservative Kayhan newspaper.

"[Council members] live simply, are highly educated, have low salaries and work 16 to 17 hours a day," he says. "In a word, they are only working for God's satisfaction. The people are looking for these kinds of people, and we hope they find what they want."

But the Tehran council result is taken as a dangerous example by reformists, who decry the council efforts to turn some cultural centers into mosques.

"People must realize what will happen if they don't go to the ballot box, and what they will lose, even if they have been critical of reforms," says Morad Veisi, chief editor of Yas-e-No, the main newspaper of the IIPF, which has been operating for nine months, and regularly publishes details of prison conditions of its activists.

A coalition between moderates in the new majlis is "not possible, because we have fundamental differences," says Mr. Veisi. "Where in that concept is the people's vote? The conservatives don't care if people come to vote or not, and that is dangerous."

Indeed, some say Iran's current political dynamic is far from the ideals of justice and democracy that were to have been restored in Iran by the 1979 revolution.

"[Current leaders] are not fulfilling the promises of the first days of the revolution," says Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, once the chosen successor of the leader of the revolution, Imam Khomeini, who was released from house arrest in January, after five years, for questioning the divine right to rule.

"The Guardian Council is also radical, and following factionalism," says Mr. Montazeri, in an interview in Iran's religious center of Qom. The council was designed to ensure that laws are "not against Islam," but "now it manages the candidates, and is doing the opposite of what it was supposed to do."

While candidates are due to be vetted in coming weeks, several reform deputies have already been attacked by vigilantes. In one case this month, some 15 thugs in the central city of Yazd beat and kicked close presidential aide Mohsen Mirdamadi, the head of parliament's National Security and Foreign Policy Committee.

Voices from across Iran's political spectrum condemned the attack.

Vice President Mohamad Ali Abtahi told the Associated Press that it was a "new strategy on the part of hard-liners to intimidate reformers...ahead of elections. They have taken up arms now." He later said the perpetrators were "part of the system."

"They are criminals...and wild wolves," says Grand Ayatollah Saanei, a ranking reformist cleric, and former head of the judiciary under Khomeini, during an interview in Qom. Mr. Saanei says Islam and democracy are an "exact" fit, though "it needs a lot of time, because all those people in theological schools do not think the same way."

Mr. Shariatmadari, the conservative editor, says he is in no doubt that the reform camp itself engineered the vigilante attack on Mr. Mirdamadi - not the shadowy hardline pressure groups usually blamed for disrupting reform gatherings.

"It is clear: the result is the result that [reformists] badly needed," Shariatmadari says.

"Instead of giving an explanation of their performance, and why they have produced nothing, [for them] it is better to talk about this incident."

Even if reformers fade at the polls, Ayatollah Moussavi Tabrizi, a reformist cleric in Qom, says their influence is still palpable. The most hard-line institutions, such as the judiciary, have been forced by the wave of reformist popularity to improve, he says.

"Of course, we have a long way to go to fulfill these ideals," the ayatollah adds. "We must do something so that people don't tire of politics - they need to be on the scene."

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