Iran reformers hemmed in ahead of elections

Hard-liners consolidate their hold as March 14 parliamentary polls approach.

Scott Peterson/Getty Images
Elyas Hazrati, editor of Etemaad, keeps this photo in his office of himself in criminal court. He got a suspended sentence in 2006 for 'publishing lies.'

Elected four times and with 16 years of lawmaking behind him, Elyas Hazrati might have been considered a shoo-in candidate in Iran's March 14 parliament elections.

But the stocky newspaper editor was among the legions of liberal reformists rejected at first for a vote that, analysts say, is geared to preserve a hard-line conservative majority in parliament.

Mr. Hazrati says he was rejected for being "against Islam," because the reformist newspaper he edits, Etemaad, is critical of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and "assaults [his government] on a daily basis."

Indeed, Hazrati has the bearing of a street fighter, has taken part in past pro-reform protests, and has spoken out on behalf of Iranians challenging the regime. In his offices, a prominent photograph shows Hazrati in the dock of Iran's criminal court, which issued an 18-month suspended sentence in 2006 for "campaigning against the Islamic Republic."

"[Conservatives] are very scared of the popularity of the reformists and have many difference among themselves," says Hazrati, whose candidacy for the 290-seat parliament, or majlis, has since been reinstated. "Even if we only have five candidates, we will tell people we are competitive in five seats … and make use of them."

Disqualifications weeks ago swept aside some 2,200 of more than 7,000 hopefuls, most of those excluded reformist candidates whose devotion to the Islamic system was questioned. Among them have been former ministers and governors, a veteran with 50 months' experience in the Iran-Iraq war, another who spent 70 months as a prisoner of war in Iraq, even a grandson of the founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

Many conservatives were embarrassed by the scale of rejections, which former President Mohammad Khatami called a "catastrophe." Lobbying of Iran's supreme religious leader Ayatollah Sayed Ali Khamenei by senior pragmatic figures has resulted in requalification so far of 850 names, with a final list due to be published today, but reformists say they can still contest only half the seats.

"The potent combination of nationalism, ideological zeal, and fear of foreign interference has closed down the political space," says a political scientist in Tehran who asked not to be named.

"This is a deliberate and preengineered clearing the way for Khamenei to ensure conservative dominance in Iranian politics for years to come," says the analyst. "They want to finish what they have not: getting rid of any reformist inclinations [and giving] a message to reformists not to contemplate a presidential comeback."

Mr. Ahmadinejad is up for reelection in 2009 and this majlis vote is seen as an important test of his support, even as some fellow conservatives chastise his uncompromising anti-West rhetoric and mishandling of the economy. The right-wing alliance calls itself "principlists," or osulgaran, but includes hard-line allies of the president as well as moderates.

"The vast majority in the next parliament will be principlists," Alireza Zakani, a majlis deputy and spokesman for Ahmadinejad's faction said last week. "The first priority of our plans will be to solve the problems of the everyday lives of people."

With inflation at about 20 percent, Iranians have seen little result from the president's 2005 campaign promises to bring each family cash from oil wealth. Hard-liners count on 20 percent bedrock support, and while they call for a broad turnout to give legitimacy to each election, that often favors reformists.

"They were not rejected because they were reformists, but because [they were] proven not to believe in the Constitution or are disloyal to the Islamic system," says Hamidreza Taraghi, a senior conservative politician. "They can be in society, but they should not hold power."

Reformists are crying foul, and accuse conservatives of systematically blocking a reform comeback that many saw germinate in December 2006, when Ahmadinejad allies were trounced in elections for city councils and the Assembly of Experts – which has power to change the supreme leader.

A reformist victory in March would have been the next step in the reformist resurgence – perhaps leading to the presidency – if a pattern set by conservatives is a guide. Hard-liners clawed their way out of their political oblivion of the late 1990s, despite the popularity of Mr. Khatami, first by winning the Tehran city council vote in 2002, then recapturing the majlis in 2004.

For those whose "power has no limits, all over the world it's the same: they don't let go of it easily," says Fatemeh Karroubi, spokeswoman of the Popular Coalition of Reformists, the largest group of reform parties. "Unfortunately, we reformists let go of our power easily and now it is very hard to get it back."

The collapse of the once-powerful reform movement serves as a lesson to conservatives, too, as they try to unite for the vote. "Anytime a group or party has victory, it leads to factional splits," says Mehdi Chamran, a ranking conservative on Tehran's City Council. "We all know this danger. When we have disunity, we say: 'Look what happened to [reformists].' "

But the scale of disqualifications has confused Iranians, uncertain of their message. "We have 30 people sitting in parliament who have been rejected. If they are not qualified, what … are they doing there?" asks a conservative voter who asked not to be named. "If someone has been a vice minister and made big deals worth billions – after being qualified and serving the system for 30 years – what makes him suddenly not qualified? This is a very questionable fact."

Still, few reformists are likely to refuse to take part. "Experience has shown that any group that boycotts elections has been wiped from the political scene," says Mehran Karami, editor of the Kargozaran newspaper, which is close to former president Hashemi Rafsanjani. "So reformists never want to be outside the system completely. Even if they have one candidate, they should vote for him."

But gains are likely to be limited, as conservatives "will never allow themselves to lose a major election" again, says Iraj Jamshidi, political editor of Etemaad who was rejected as a candidate. He was not only rejected for being against the Islamic system but also denied for having a "bad reputation," a claim usually reserved for armed robbery, and for bothering neighbors, who he says told inspectors that he "values social manners."

"I've never been to a police station, either as a witness or a suspect," says Mr. Jamshidi. "Yet now I'm known for a 'bad reputation.' "

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