Iran Election Watch #1

Interview with Yasmin Alem

What is Iran’s parliamentary election schedule until the March poll?
Election activities began in December as Iran’s Election Commission announced that the Ministry of Interior established election headquarters in all 31 provinces. The key dates are:
  • December 24: The candidate registration period begins.
  • December 30: The registration period ends.
  • January: The Guardian Council reviews the credentials of all candidates, a process that usually takes about a month.
  • Late January or early February: The final list of eligible candidates – and disqualified candidates -- should be released. In the past, the majority of candidates have been disqualified for not meeting vague criteria.
  • February 22: The official campaign period begins and lasts eight days.
  • February 29: The official campaign ends. 
  • March 2: Election Day.
Who will organize and run Iran’s latest election—and how has control over voting procedures changed over the past three decades?
Two bodies are charged with managing and administering election-related activities in Iran:
  • The Guardian Council has a broad supervisory role. It vets all candidates, monitors the voting process, and certifies the election results.
  • The Ministry of Interior implements election operations under the council’s authority. It is responsible for the conduct of elections, including establishing and operating polling stations, administering the vote, and tabulating the results.  
Iran’s electoral infrastructure has technically not changed much since the 1979 revolution, but in practice the role of the Guardian Council has increasingly marginalized the Ministry of Interior. The twelve-man Council of religious and legal experts has emerged as the main arbiter of election outcomes in two ways. First, the Council has extended its powers to interpret the constitution to include supervising all stages of the elections, including the approval and rejection of candidates.
Second, the Council has transformed its temporary supervisory offices staffed with volunteers into permanent offices in every county across the country. Today, Iran has more than 384 Guardian Council supervisory offices operating year-round with full-time staff members. Concurrently, the Council has enjoyed an astronomical budget growth from $480,000 in 2000 to $25 million in 2011. The Guardian Council, dominated by conservatives, has thus morphed into the most omnipotent and omnipresent electoral management body in Iran.
What are the political undercurrents and competing interests among the government offices that oversee elections?
Over the past three decades, relations between the Guardian Council and the Ministry of Interior have fluctuated—sometimes quite seriously. Occasionally, the two bodies have had common interests, but other times they have been controlled by competing factions. Since its inception, the Council has tied to conservative factions. The Interior Ministry, however, has changed hands as part of the executive branch of government.
During the 2004 Majles elections, the conservative-dominated Guardian Council and the reformist-controlled Ministry of Interior were at daggers drawn. But the 2008 Majles elections were organized at a time that both institutions were under conservative control. The upcoming 2012 Majles elections are unique. Although conservative factions control both the ministry and the Council, their rivalries have turned the process into political fratricide.
Far from being a homogenous group, conservative factions have generally melded into broad coalitions during electoral events to maximize their share of the votes. At the onset of the 2009 presidential election, competing conservative factions united against the reformists. But after the regime suppressed the Green Movement, brewing tensions over President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s long-term political agenda re-emerged. A public rift between Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and President Ahmadinejad erupted in the spring of 2011 and deepened conflict among conservatives. The president’s staunchest conservative supporters quickly turned into his vocal critics. The president’s associates were charged with corruption and embezzlement and publicly dubbed “political deviants.”
Revelations about Iran’s largest banking embezzlement, scandals over corruption in the automotive industry and the alleged plundering of social security pensions fueled the conservatives’ war against Ahmadinejad. Members of Parliament have repeatedly threatened to summon the president to parliament for questioning and some have even proposed to impeach him.
In late 2011, Ahmadinejad fought back by threatening opponents with revelations about their own misconduct. He has reportedly also used state resources under his control to win over interest groups. The president and his controversial chief of staff, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, have reportedly paid between $15,000 to $40,000 to all Friday prayer leaders, who play an important role in mobilizing the faithful.  
The open power struggle among disparate conservative factions is likely to make the elections more interesting or contentious than originally expected.
What are the various electoral bodies doing to prepare for the March 2012 poll? Will there be different procedures this year?
Politically, the two main institutions in charge of elections are implementing strategies intended to tilt the balance of power in their own favor.
The conduct of elections provides the sole avenue for President Ahmadinejad and his supporters to influence the election outcome. So, for the first time, the Interior Ministry is conducting training seminars for local authorities in Iran’s provincial capitals. The training is designed to enhance the technical knowledge of election officials, but it also appears to be politically motivated.
Ahmadinejad’s rivals have not been idle. The judiciary has also set up special judicial branches in Iran’s provincial capitals to ensure the implementation of election rules and the swift prosecution of electoral violators. The judiciary is, notably, headed by Sadeq Larijani, a former Guardian Council member and brother of the parliamentary speaker. State Prosecutor General Gholam-Hossein Mohseni-Ejei, a bitter foe of Ahmadinejad, heads this initiative. The Guardian Council has warned the “deviant current” against trying to manipulate the election. The new judicial procedure is widely seen as a means of providing the Guardian Council and forces close to the supreme leader with additional levers of pressure against the president and his supporters.
Yasmin Alem, an independent Iran analyst, is the author of Duality by Design: The Iranian Electoral System published by the International Foundation of ElectoralSystems.