Khatami's re-election an irrelevance for the reform movement

Mohammad Reza Shalguni

Having been pushed into a corner, Khatami's likely election victory will be mere cosmetics for the victorious ultra-conservative faction. The reform movement has no choice but to step over the narrow confines of the constitution if it is to survive.

With the elections drawing close arguments over it are the hottest political issue. Despite the almost total failure of the reformists to confront the apparatus of the religious ruler and the ultra-conservatives, and despite losing face with the majority of the population, some people are still taking the elections seriously. For them whether Khatami regains the presidency or not is one of the most important political questions in the present climate. This anlysis is misleading. I will give the reasons in brief.

No religious government

  1. Events in the last few years have shown that a crushing majority of the people of Iran are fed up to the teeth with the system of velayate faqih where a religious ruler has absolute power over the entire society – be it political or civil. No one can miss the signs that a rejection of a religious state has become the most important accord for a decisive majority. One can add that the greatest movement for a separation of religion and state in the world is taking place in Iran today.

    In the last four years the people have been able to utilise a unique and exceptional situation to turn three elections – for the presidency in 1997, the municipal council in 1998 and the Majles last year – into a referendum against the velayate faqih. The crisis of the legitimacy is now so obvious that even the apparatus of the religious ruler has accepted that escaping it is not on the cards, at least for now. This is why it has made its opposition to the principle of the republic so blatant. Even at the level of theory it has made it into its official interpretation of the Constitution. Accordingly, "Islamic government" was the aim of the revolution not an Islamic "republic".

    The finality of the crisis of legitimacy has drastically reduced the usefulness of a protest vote. In short even if the people can repeat their previous victory and turn this election too into an expression of hatred for the velayate faqih, it would no longer be a political victory. You cannot, so to speak re-undermine a legitimacy that you have already undermined.

    Slap unlikely this time

  2. It is unlikely that the voters will be given a chance to explicitly express their revulsion of the velayate faqih in the forthcoming elections for the following reasons:

    a). The Khatami of 2001 cannot represent something different from the velayate faqih. His platform in 1997 was the "rule of law". In the public eye that was a protest at the lawlessness and bullying of the apparatus of the religious ruler.

    Four years on it is obvious that Khatami and his allies do not have the stomach to stand up to these bullying, or even to make a protest. Their acquiescence to the wholesale closure of reformist press by dictat from the religious ruler Khamenei’ was just one example. The "rule of law" is now seen to be meaningless without a change in the law and the Constitution. But Khatami of 2001 has made it clear that any change in the constitution is treason, let alone changing the constitution.

    b.) We have seen in the three elections I alluded to that it is only possible to have a protest vote against the velayate faqih if there are clearly candidates which can be identified with the reformists and the religious ruler. We saw that in the presidential election when Khatami opposed Nategh Nuri, who was supported by the religious ruler, or the huge vote for the brother of the imprisoned reformist cleric Abdollah Nuri (no relation of Nategh Nuri) in opposition to the pitiable votes polled for Rafsanjani. It was a spit in the face of the apparatus of the velayate faghih. But in the elections to the assembly of experts (1998) no such choice was given and the people merely stayed home.

    In the forthcoming elections too, it is unlikely that such a confrontation will be permitted. The ultra-conservatives have learnt the lesson not to bring their face close enough to be slapped by the people. It is not surprising that up to a week before the deadline they had not yet presented a well-known candidate. They know well that any famous figure who is identified as having special support of the ultra-conservatives will anger the people and cause them to rush to the polls in a protest vote.

    It is even unlikely that the ultra-right will attempt to recapture the executive branch. They, more than anyone know where real executive power lies. The occupation of the elected organs by the reformists, at least at present, gives them a shield which will partly protects them from directly confronting the population.

    c). Evidence shows that in the forthcoming elections the Council of Guardians will not confine itself to vetting the candidates. It will in practice run the elections too. Not just the count, but the total "votes" cast for each candidate will be done with the "expediency of the system" in mind. Thus even if the whole of Iran votes for Khatami, it is unclear if that is what will be announced. [1]

    Total right victory not possible

  3. The fear that the reformists will be swept aside and the regime will become uniform is misplaced:

    a). Notwithstanding momentary fluctuations, the tensions and conflict within the regime is on the increase, deepened further by the deepening crisis of legitimacy. At the moment the regime is experiencing the greatest gulf in its ideology of its entire existence.

    A regime that presented itself all these years as coming out of a revolution and expressing the will of a people is now forced to admit almost daily through its various tribunes that the peoples vote is worthless when faced with of the will of the velayate faqih. That is the legitimacy of the velayate faqih does not arise from the people. To colour deeper the thesis of the Islamic government in contrast to the Islamic republic. These will only increase popular discontent against the regime and make it, from the ideological angle, more out of place and indefensible.

    Moreover it increases the tensions inside the regime’s ideological and even repressive organs. It is no coincidence that a number of the regime’s senior cadres are being violently driven out of the institutions of power. Some have even received long prison sentences. It is also no coincidence that in the higher echelons of the clergy opposition to the velayate faqih, and particular to his unlimited powers is growing. Indeed, the special clerical court has become one of the busiest repressive body.

    b). The central core of the governmental reformists in the institutions of power are not amateurs. Throughout the life of this regime they have had a strong foothold there. What has given to their presence a new meaning in recent years is the peoples’ relation to them. The people latched on to their differences with the ultra-conservatives into a means of opposing the apparatus of the velayat and the principle of the velayate faqih. Their value was to act as a vehicle for transmitting disseminating and widening popular discontent.

    Having expelled those reformists who do not believe in the constitution from the institutions of power, and deprived them of the means of openly organising and propagating their message, the reformists within government are increasingly becoming an insulation against popular protest. For this reason their differences with the apparatus of leadership loses its general usefulness, and becomes merely an internal matter between the rulers.

    c). In the current conditions the presence of Khatami and his close allies, rather than being useful to the freedom struggle of the Iranian people benefits the velayate faqih apparatus. It can indeed prolong the wretched life of the religious rulership. I do not deny their difference with the totalitarians. But in conditions when the boat of velayate faqih is being sucked into whirlpool, there is no reason for the more long-sighted members of velayate faqih do not see the benefit of the reformist presence in the institutions of power.

    Their presence there can act as cosmetics, and useful in international relations by providing a fig leaf for western governments to make deals with the Islamic Republic. It will also confuse the Iranian people over the prospects of reform within the present constitutional set up. Finally it will improve the equilibrium between the internal factions and strengthen ever more the position of the velayate faqih. Undoubtedly it will allow him to manoeuvre even with his totalitarian supporters.

    Only one beneficiary

  4. Therefore the most important political question facing the country at present is not the way the presidential elections progresses, but the way the extra-legal battles of the people against the velayate faghih will spread and become generalised. Whether people vote for Khatami in droves or not will not solve the problems facing the people.

If these elections have any use it is for the apparatus of the velayate faqih. The key question facing the freedom struggle of the Iranian people has gone beyond the crisis of legitimacy – it has become the crisis of control. The slogan "rule of law" is meaningless in the Islamic Republic. We must fight for the "rule of the people" by creating independent, progressive and democratic barricades.

May 2001


1. The precedence was in last Majles elections when 700,000 votes in Teheran were declared null for no convincing reason than to save face for Rafsanjani who had failed to get into the first 30.