Elections to the Assembly of Experts: Winners and losers


Low turnout despite electoral fraud was a slap in the face of both factions of the Islamic regime

According to the Interior Ministry just under seventeen and a half million people went voted for the Assembly of Experts [1], a sharp drop compared to the 30 million votes in last year’s presidential election. 55% of the electorate, some 21 million stayed away. The intense pressures, including by President Khatami, to make this vote into an affirmation of the system as a whole clearly failed. Yet even this turnout was larger than countless independent reports of empty voting booths had predicted.

The election raises several questions? How much were the voting figures rigged? Why did Khatami, who controls the interior ministry, approve of this rigging? Finally how do the results of this elections, and the collusion of the Khatami faction, effect the factional quarrels, and how would it effect the movement for democracy of the millions who voted for Khatami in last year’s elections.

Less easy to boycott

We had argued that the maximum votes for the ultra-reactionary faction around the religious ruler Ayatollah Khamenei’ could not exceed 9 million, the combined votes of the other two candidates (Nategh Nuri and Rayshahri) in the presidential election last year. Nothing has changed in the succeeding 17 months to get those who voted for Khatami to change their mind. If anything the dominant faction had shown its opposition to any opening of the political climate by attacking gatherings, banning newspapers, arresting writers and journalists, and threatening them with the death penalty for treason.

This extra 8.5 million is made up of those who cast blank votes (5% in Teheran), those who simply submitted to the ideological-political pressures to vote, and those afraid of ending up without an election stamp on their ID. In times of intense economic hardship - as now - this could deprive them of food and other vital ration coupons. What this makes clear is that the people find it easier to use elections to show their opposition by voting than by boycotting. This is a point the internal and external opposition cannot ignore.

Then there are the voters who heeded Khatami. He, as well as the pro-Rafsanjani Kargozarane Sazandegi (Agents of Construction), had strongly urged people to take part. While at least 21 million ignored that call, some clearly obeyed.

But the majority of this excess vote was probably through rigging. This is especially true in such provinces and as Khorasan and Kohkiluyeh Boyer.

As to the political message the elections had for the regime, it did come not so much from the 17.5 million who voted than the 21 million who did not. These are its active, and courageous, opponents. They had defied increasingly urgent calls to obey their “religious duty” and to fight the “enemies of Islam” by affirming the legitimacy of the “Islamic government” and the “Islamic order”. By their defiance they have braved the consequences of their illegitimate act of siding with the “enemies of Islam”.

Khatami’s dilemma

Small-scale local rigging is clearly beyond central control. Electoral fraud in the millions is unlikely without collusion of the Interior Ministry. With Khatami’s men in control of this ministry why did he collude in fraud. And, indeed, why did he advise his supporters to vote when all but a handful of the candidates from his faction were barred from standing?

The answer can be found in the root of the factional differences which are all over how to safeguard and consolidate the political system. This remains true even if policies sometimes have the opposite effect, or if the people ride these factional differences with the aim of overthrowing the system.

Khatami’s faction, for example, does not want to overthrow the system of velayate faqih (where a religious ruler - presently Khamenei’ - has total control over both civil and political society of the country). He wants to safeguard the system as a whole through reforms in the structure of power and the relations between the different ruling institutions. If a low turnout to the recent elections weakens the system as a whole, Khatami would be expected to agree to massaging of the voting figures. If Khatami wants to remove such accusations, then let him appoint an independent investigation on last month’s elections.

Here we face a major contradiction in the views of Khatami and his fellow thinkers. They believe that the system of velayate faqih is compatible with the opening of the political climate, political freedoms and reforms, the rule of law etc. For the likes of Khatami, therefore, and this is an important point, the people’s vote is limited at best to choosing between the various ruling factions or reforms within the system. Where the vote - or the lack of it - targets the very existence of the system, it is no longer worthy of respect. Thus in one breath Khatami defends freedom of speech and thought in Islamic philosophy, and in another colludes in depriving people of the chance to express their political will through refusing to vote in elections where choice has been denied them.

One thing is clear though. Regardless of Khatami’s role in this electoral fraud, and whether it was by agreement or forced upon him, the people not only gave their vote of no confidence on the Assembly of Experts, the Council of Guardians, the principle of the velayate faqih, and the person of Khamenei’, but also to the regime in its entirety, including all its factions.

The vote of no confidence in Khatami can be seen in the number of votes cast for the few candidates of his faction who were allowed through the net of the Council of Guardians [2], such a Majid Ansari who got 5-10% of the vote! The point is clear:  mass support for Khatami in last year’s presidential elections was not a personal vote. It was the voters way of paving the way for more freedom, individual and social rights, democracy, ending economic hardships, and ultimately the overthrow of the regime.

End to factions?

This is not the first time that factions came together to safeguard the whole system and does not mean that differences, even savage confrontations, are over. The roots of the crisis, and the rivalries these produce, are too deep to heal through such factional deals. Indeed, the evidence of the last years show that each deal, retreat or compromise only deepens the gulfs, and pushes the next factional quarrels onto a higher plain.

This is because at the roots of factional squabbles are the economic and social crisis, mass discontent, recurring revolts by the destitute, a restless youth, and an increasingly vocal women’s movement. The regime’s ideological fetters, its system of government, its internal power relations, its institutional structure ... means it cannot answer these problems. It is this contradiction, and this inability, that threatens the regime’s future. And it is the solutions offered to escape this predicament that divided the regime into factions and lift conflicts into the realm of politics and ultimately onto the question of power. While the regime remains gripped by cultural, social and economic crisis, there are no escaping factions and factional fights.

The implications of the boycott will also be a source of crisis, which in the first instance will focus on the leadership apparatus. Even the carefully filtered Assembly of Experts cannot overcome such pressures. The weakness and bankruptcy of Khamenei’, will provoke many challenges. Watch this space over the next months.

The election outcome will also increase tension within Khatami’s coalition partners. Khatami effectively disarmed himself while losing the only weapon he had - the popular vote. The president’s camp is unlikely to repeat the same mistake in next February’s council elections and the next Majles elections, where total control by the dominant faction is not so critical, and where some degree of factional representation is acceptable to them.

Pulpit or bayonet

One of the most deep-rooted contradictions of the Islamic regime is that it can neither survive without having some sort of popular base, nor tolerate that base when it expresses its individual will. It needs obedient subjects, always present on the scene, but only to obey orders.

The clerical regime periodically goes to the ballot in order to test its legitimacy: to obtain bei’at (allegiance). This is fundamental to this system. It can therefore neither avoid elections nor allow elections to express real wishes of the people.

The stark choice facing them is to either accept that it is a “regime of the bayonet” and therefore pass power over to the barracks and the generals. Or if insists on remaining the “regime of the pulpit”, then it has to periodically do whatever it can to draw the people to a vote of bei’at. Since it cannot either fill in the cracks that constantly appear from within itself, nor remove them by purges and surgery, it has to resort to a show of elections in order to legitimise these cuts.

The people have learnt this and use it cleverly to intervene in politics, and use factional conflicts to intervene in political life. Whenever allowed to gain some advantage, they have intervened by voting. Whenever deprived of this chance they have boycotted the election. Thus lacking political parties, trade unions, and independent associations, and despite the repression the people have used every opportunity to express their views and push forward their demands: indirectly through elections, or explosively through protests and riots. These struggles have helped shape the political atmosphere, and improve conditions for building association and fermenting solidarity below. The chain of demonstrations and riots in several cities, and the labour strikes in the years 1993-7 increased the crisis of the regime and forced it to abandon some of the structural adjustment policies. It also brought back inter-factional democracy which the people used in last year’s presidential elections to place the restructuring of political power on the political agenda. This has now become unavoidable. The votes cast in the latest election confirm this. The forthcoming months will see an accelerated focus on the restructuring of political power.

And at the end of this tunnel? The probable outcome is for the religious government to be either pulled down by the people, or through a series of coup d’etats, be transformed into an out and out military regime - perhaps at its helm a General Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei’! For some time the ruling faction has been moving along this route.



1. The Assembly of Experts is elected every eight years and has the power to chose and remove the religious ruler - the valy-e faqih. See iran bulletin 18, 1998 number 2.

2. Appointed by the religious ruler, among its many functions is to vet candidates to election. In the current elections the Guardians excluded all but 160 of the 400 candidates, including all 9 women and all but a handful of pro-Khatami candidates.



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