The Economist: The parliament returned by Iranians in nationwide voting on Friday March 14th appears at first glance to be a replica of the outgoing one. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is bolstered by flawed elections in Iran
Mar 17th 2008 | TEHRAN
THE parliament returned by Iranians in nationwide voting on Friday March 14th appears at first glance to be a replica of the outgoing one. Conservatives who claim stricter adherence to the 1979 Islamic revolutions ideals, and adopt a more combative tone with the outside world, retained a majority almost as crushing as the one they gained in the last parliamentary election, in 2004. A claimed 60% of the electorate turned out for the vote, allowing Irans unelected supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to declare that his people had foiled an enemy plot to foment voter apathy. But as with many aspects of life in the Islamic Republic, the election result is more nuanced than it may seem.
The conservatives, or principlists as they prefer to be called, are far from united behind their leading figure, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has been Irans president since 2005. Their divisions reflect not only policy differences, but also jockeying by Mr Ahmadinejads rivals in advance of next years presidential election. Running on a separate list from the presidents supporters, powerful principlists such as Ali Larijani, Irans former nuclear negotiator, attacked Mr Ahmadinejad for the alleged incompetence of his economic management, which has pushed inflation close to 20%, and for needlessly antagonising foreign powers with inflammatory rhetoric. Aware that enthusiasm for the president has waned, even among the provincial poor who make up his strongest constituency, most conservative candidates tried to distance themselves from Mr Ahmadinejad, instead emphasising their closeness to Ayatollah Khamenei.
Although final results will not be known before run-off votes for some 60 of the 290 seats are held next month or so, it is clear that loyalists to the president will face a harder task in pushing through legislation than in the outgoing parliament. Some analysts say it is likely that the more pragmatic principlists may forge tactical alliances with outright opponents to Mr Ahmadinejad in order to keep him in check, particularly in regard to his populist economic policies.
The core of that opposition is made up of so-called reformists, whose aim is to broaden Irans heavily constricted democracy, expand the civic freedoms that have been greatly curbed under Mr Ahmadinejads rule, and present a friendlier face in foreign policy. Despite severe handicaps, including a sweeping ban that disbarred most of their candidates, press crackdowns that muzzled the reformist press, conservative charges of straying from Islam, blunt commands from the supreme leader that Iranians should back conservatives, and the decision by much of their natural constituency to boycott the vote, reformists appear to have succeeded in scoring modest electoral gains, increasing their foothold in parliament from just 40 to probably more than 50 seats.
Even with the possible aid of conservative pragmatists, that is far from enough to alter Irans course over such controversial issues as its nuclear programme. This, like Irans sponsorship of armed Shia factions in Iraq, and of Hizbollah, the Lebanese Shia group, is controlled by the supreme leader. In fact, it is Ayatollah Khamenei who appears to be the biggest winner from the election.
The owlish, black-turbaned cleric already controls important institutions such as the state broadcasting monopoly, hugely wealthy religious charities, the Basij, a paramilitary volunteer force with millions of members, and the Republican Guards, the shadowy, disciplined and well-funded elite corps that runs parallel not only to the national army and intelligence services, but dozens of large companies. He also appoints the 12 members of the Guardian Council, the body of clerics that vets both candidates and legislation for adherence to the principles of the Islamic revolution.
With Mr Ahmadinejad set for a testy relationship with the new parliament, Ayatollah Khamenei may find it even easier to bend policy to his will. Yet by patiently accruing power since he replaced the revolutions founder, Ayatollah Khomeini, in 1989, the supreme leader also increasingly risks associating his position with the Islamic republics failures. As UN-imposed sanctions bite deeper, and even Irans middle classes struggle to make ends meet, the triumphalism of Irans conservatives is likely to ring increasingly hollow.