Election Watch #2: Iran Starts Slashing Candidates

Interview with Yasmin Alem

How do the numbers of registered candidates compare to previous elections?
The number of candidates who registered for the 2012 parliamentary elections is at its lowest since the 1996 elections. Only 5,395 individuals registered to run for parliament, a 33 percent drop from four years ago. Women comprise less than 10 percent of those who have registered to run. Mostafa Mohammad Najjar, the Minister of Interior has attributed this decline to amendments made to the electoral law, such as the prerequisite that a candidate hold at least a master’s degree. Other factors include the prevailing climate of political apathy, the marginalization of reformists, and prospects of harsher disqualifications.
In sharp contrast, the number of incumbents seeking re-election is at a record high for the 2012 poll. Of the parliament’s 290 sitting MPs, 260 are seeking re-election. With incumbency rates averaging 35 percent in the last 30 years, it will be interesting to see how many deputies will be re-elected and how many will lose ground to freshmen challengers.
The elephant in the room, however, is the absence of leading reformists. In an attempt to portray the upcoming elections as pluralistic, the Ministry of Interior announced that 14 percent of registered candidates are associated with the reformist camp. Yet, two of the most prominent reformist parties have announced that they will not register for the vote. Like the reformist members of the current Majles, the candidates carrying the reformist banner are widely expected to be aligned with third- or fourth-tier reformist groups.
The Islamic Republic has a long record of family members entering politics. Who are the high profile or unusual candidates?
Four are particularly interesting. One is Parvin Ahmadinejad, the sister of the president. Tahereh Nazari Mehr, the wife of dismissed foreign minister Manouchehr Mottaki, is also running.
Mohammad Reza Tabesh, the Secretary General of the Parliament’s minority faction, has also registered as a candidate. His registration came as a surprise since his uncle, former president Mohammad Khatami, had previously opined that participation in the upcoming poll was meaningless under the current circumstances.   
Another high profile candidate is Mojtaba Zolnour, the former deputy representative of the Supreme Leader in the Revolutionary Guards. The majority of the high profile candidates this year belong to conservative ranks.

Who was excluded and what implications does this have?
In the first round of vetting by the Ministry of Interior, only 17 percent of candidates were disqualified. The second and final round of vetting, by the Guardian Council, is currently underway. The Council has the power to reverse the results of the first round and to reject the credentials of approved candidates.
Among those disqualified were 32 sitting MPs. Accusations that the provincial-level executive committees -- in charge of the first round of screening – acted in a partisan fashion surfaced when the credentials of President Ahmadinejad’s strongest critics in parliament were rejected. They included Ali Mottahari, Hamidreza Katouzian and Godratollah Alikhani. The first round of vetting provided Ahmadinejad’s allies the opportunity to settle old scores.
Hamidreza Katouzian, a two-term conservative MP, was instrumental in impeaching President Ahmadinejad’s close friend and minister of Interior Ali Kordan in 2008. Ali Mottahari, the son of Ayatollah Mottahari, one of the ideologues of the Islamic Republic, spearheaded the initiative to question the president, albeit unsuccessfully.
Speaker of parliament Ali Larijani has questioned the legality of some disqualifications and condemned the actions of the Ministry of Interior. Charges of unfair vetting have also emerged in small towns. In the president’s hometown of Garmsar, the five most serious rivals of Parvin Ahmadinejad were reportedly disqualified in the first round of screenings. Many speculate that the move is designed to ensure a victory for the president’s sister and prevent the risk of an electoral defeat.
What is likely to happen in the second round of vetting?
The Guardian Council has the final say on vetting the candidates, so the list is likely to change again in the coming weeks. On January 22, provincial-level supervisory committees -- under the authority of the Guardian Council – already reinstated 10 out of 32 disqualified MPs. Among the approved candidates were Ahmadinejad’s staunchest critics such as Mr. Mottahari and Katouzian. In contrast, at least two clerics closely associated with the president’s controversial chief of staff, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, had their credentials rejected in the second stage of vetting.
The Guardian Council is set to release the final list of vetted candidates on February 21, only ten days before Election Day. If the first stage of the electoral process is any indication, current intra-conservative rifts are likely to deepen in the final weeks before the elections.
Yasmin Alem, an independent Iran analyst, is the author of Duality by Design: The Iranian Electoral System published by the International Foundation of ElectoralSystems. 
Click here to read Yasmin Alem's latest article on the upcoming Elections.