Challenging the Balance of Power: Ahmadinejad vs. Parliament

 Interview with Hosein Ghazian

     Hosein Ghazian is an Iranian sociologist and former pollster who is currently a visiting scholar at Syracuse University.
     This is the eleventh in a series on parliamentary elections due in March 2012:
  • How has parliament’s political role—and authority--been affected by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s presidency?
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has challenged the parliament in two of its primary roles: legislating and supervision [of the executive branch]. Ahmadinejad has refused to implement laws approved by the parliament and ignored the latter’s supervisory role.
Ahmadinejad has defended his actions by arguing that certain parliament-approved laws contradict the constitution. Technically, the approval of laws passed by parliament is the Guardian Council’s duty.
Ahmadinejad offers a legal explanation for his interpretation. He argues that Iran’s political system had been converted from a parliamentary to a presidential system after the constitutional revisions in 1989 [shortly after revolutionary leader Ayatollah Khomeini’s death]. He claims that Khomeini’s description of parliament’s role at “the helm of politics” applies to the period before the constitutional change—and his death. Most legal scholars disagree with Ahmadinejad’s interpretation.
Throughout the Islamic Republic’s 32-year history, parliament’s role has never been as restrained politically and symbolically as it has been under Ahmadinejad’s presidency. Ahmadinejad has not adhered to the Islamic Republic’s political traditions and has even ignored its legal boundaries and procedures. Neither former president Mohammad Khatami nor former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani challenged the Majles as much as Ahmadinejad. The legislative branch also had greater authority than the executive when Mir Hossein Mousavi was prime minister and Ali Khamenei was president in the 1980s.
  • How does parliament’s current role compare to that during the reformist period of President Mohammad Khatami?
The presidential and parliamentary elections are not held at the same time. So each president has to deal with two different parliamentary sessions during each term (and three sessions in their two terms).
Ahmadinejad’s two terms (2005-09, 2009- present) have so far overlapped with the seventh and eighth parliaments (2004-2008 and 2008- present). Both have been fairly similar in their formation, membership, political nature, and actions. [He will face a third session after the 2012 parliamentary elections.]
President Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005) also faced three different parliamentary sessions during his two terms in office. But these sessions were quite different from each other:
  • The fifth parliament (1997-2000): Right-leaning deputies had the majority and began challenging the reformists, although this parliament was operating in a socio-political context in which reformists were ascending. So the fortunes of the conservative faction and followers of the supreme leader began to diminish.
  • The sixth parliament (1997-2000): Reformists were dominant. This parliament is considered Iran’s most progressive parliament to date and tended to support the Khatami administration. Although this parliament and Khatami were able to support each other politically, they were not able to coordinate or push through political reform in the face of resistance from the regime’s unelected institutions [such as the Guardian Council that vets legislation].
  • The seventh parliament (2004-2008): The supreme leader had important influence on political candidates through] electoral engineering.  Prominent reformists were vetted heavily by the Guardian Council plus voter turnout, particularly in large cities, was very low. This parliament was subservient to the supreme leader politically--even at the expense of losing some independence. Parliament supported Ahmadinejad laragely because of the supreme leader’s strong support for the president. Dissident parliamentarians were a minority; their voices were overshadowed by hardliners who controlled the majority of seats.
This balance of power continued until 2010 [mid-way through the eighth parliament). But in 2011, some MPs have changed their positions toward Ahmadinejad, as the supreme leader’s relationship with the president has changed.
Khamenei ended his strong support for the president after Ahmadinejad tried to demonstrate his political independence. Khamenei’s ardent supporters have now begun to challenge the president.
Parliament’s heightened opposition to Ahmadinejad also stems from a political tradition. Members of parliament tend to disagree with the administration more toward the end of parliament’s four-year term. These deputies question the administration on economic and social failures in order to increase their own popularity among people unhappy about their lives.
  • What issues have caused tensions between the current administration and parliament?
Tensions between the parliament and president are rooted in Ahmadinejad’s attempts to reduce the parliament’s law-making and supervisory powers. But political disagreements have recently increased.
Ahmadinejad has undermined the parliament’s supervisory role in several ways which has led to heightened conflict:
  • concealing or not releasing various economic data, such as information on foreign currency reserves and the amount of deposits in the National Development Fund;
  • refusing to answer questions by the Audit Court, affiliated with the Parliament,  on the implementation of annual budget plans; and
  • refraining from submitting annual reports on the progress of  Majles-approved five-year development plan. Even official data showed that Iran was well behind achieving its economic goals.
So parliament has been unable to supervise the administration when it does not have data.  The administration’s lack of transparency has angered prominent parliament deputies such as Speaker of Parliament Ali Larijani and Ahmad Tavakoli, head of the Majles Research Center.
The subsidy reform plan, for instance, aims to eliminate subsidies on energy, foodstuffs and medicine, instead giving cash payments to families. Based on the administration’s original suggestion, the plan would have allowed the administration to appropriate $40 billion annually, to spend on the plan’s implementation and investment. Parliament initially halved the amount to $20 billion and placed restrictions on its spending. But the administration ultimately appropriated the full $40 billion that Majles had not approved by changing the implementation of the plan.
A constant dispute between the executive and legislative branches has centered on the annual budget. [Each budget has to be finalized by the Iranian New Year in March, so the executive branch is supposed to submit its plan to Majles for approval by the previous December or January. But] the administration has continuously delayed submission of the budget, ultimately forcing parliament to accept the budget, without much revision, due to time constraints.
The Ahmadinejad administration has also tried to buy parliamentary votes by giving financial support to a district or, reportedly, cash to specific MPs. These reports have further heightened tensions and encouraged opposing parties to further reveal information against each other.
Tension between the current administration and parliament is now unprecedented. The intensity of disputes is all the more interesting because conservatives—including the supreme leader—hope to unify disparate conservative factions in one bloc in preparation for the 2012 parliamentary and 2013 presidential elections.
The 2012 parliamentary elections are considered a platform for the 2013 presidential elections, so Ahmadinejad’s opponents are benefitting from heightened opposition to the president and his chief of staff, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei.
Attacks against Ahmadinejad are tacitly supported by the supreme leader. With the reformists now marginalized, Khamenei views Ahmadinejad’s political task as over. Khamenei also needs someone to blame for Iran’s economic and social woes over the past six or seven years—and Ahmadinejad seems to be one of the main candidates for this purpose.
  • What role will the Guardian Council play in the 2012 election? Do you expect it to vary from the past?
The Guardian Council is responsible for preventing outsiders from gaining a role in the regime through elections. Like other institutions, it has obeyed the supreme leader in the role of vetting candidates, and it is unlikely to deviate in the upcoming election. The council is likely to continue cleansing the political system of opposition.
The Islamic Republic embarked in a different direction after the 2009 election; the emphasis today is less on being a “republic” and more on being “Islamic.” Regime critics now call Iran an Islamic government—in which elections are of lesser value--rather than an Islamic Republic.
The regime is in the process of redefining boundaries between regime insiders and outsiders. Some political currents are being excluded. They include:
  • reformists
  • major groups, such as the Islamic Participation Front and the Combatant Clerics Association
  • prominent politicians, such as like Hashemi Rafsanjani
  • and some of Ahmadinejad’s supporters.
For now, only those currents, forces, and individuals considered to be insiders are likely to be allowed to participate in the 2012 elections. Candidates have been rigidly vetted in the past, but this time the circle of insiders is smaller than ever.     
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