By Nader Habibi, Philadelphia
Six years ago there were high expectations that Mr. Khatami and his reformist supporters would pave the way towards democracy and respect for human rights. The reform movement tried to fulfill its promise but it was stopped by a strong conservative faction of the Islamic regime that enjoyed the backing of the powerful Supreme Leader. However, as a result of the power struggle between the reformists and conservatives, the political system of Iran has undergone a limited amount of change. While it is not a democratic system based on Western standards, it is not a typical dictatorship either. For one thing the incidents of political protest are frequent. Political dissidents are arrested, but other groups in the society are able to protest these arrests and mobilize the international public opinion against execution and torture of political prisoners. In other words, unlike typical third world dictatorships of the last fifty years, the hardline faction of Islamic regime has had a difficult time liquidating its reformist opponents over the last six years. The hardliners still show more violence against secular opponents but even their treatment of seculars is constraint by the reformists' calls for protection of human rights.
The fact that many of the reformist candidates who were re-qualified in recent days, have voluntarily withdrawn their candidacy, does not necessary benefit the hardliners. Sure they might easily win the majority of seats in the seventh parliament but the regime's crisis of legitimacy will deepen. The reformists might even widen their support base by attracting some border-seculars and getting closer to the religious/nationalist front (Melli/Maz-habi).
The recent resistance of the reformists against the disqualification of parliamentary candidates has made it more difficult for the hardliners to purge their rivals. Just as it has been difficult for the hardliners to silence the reformists in recent days despite their defiance of the Supreme Leaders call on everyone to support the elections, it will be hard to suppress them in the future. One reason for this prediction is that most of the reformists have blood ties with the extended families of Late Ayatollah Khomeini and other high-ranking clergy. For example, Mohammad-Reza Khatami, who is one of the main leaders of the reform movement, is married to the granddaughter of Ayatollah Khomeini. These complex family networks reduce the tendency of hardliners toward violent repression of the reform leaders. In its early years, the Islamic regime jailed and executed thousands of its opponents. Yet in the past six years it has not executed any of its vocal reformist opponents although there have been executions for other offenses.
Consequently the power struggle between the reformists and the hardliners is likely to continue even after the February 20th elections. Reformists and the dissident influential clergy such as Ayatollah Montazeri will continue their barrage of criticism. Their activities will embolden the student movements and lead to potentially explosive protests and growing calls for national referendum. Even if the hardliners win the elections, they might finally come to the realization that they cannot exclude the reformists from power without endangering the survival of the entire regime. Hence, after a period of post-election crisis, they might finally agree to a formal power-sharing arrangement within the current institutional framework. What will emerge under this scenario could best be described as a Two-party Oligarchy. It will be a power-sharing arrangement between the hardliners and the reformists.
On one hand it will be an oligarchy because a majority of people will continue to be excluded from political office. This will happen because the Guardian Council will remain in place. Reluctantly it will permit the reformists to run for elected offices but will disqualify two important social groups: 1) the non-practicing and semi-practicing Muslims, 2) the clerics and practicing believers who reject the notion of Supreme Leadership. Looking at the cultural spectrum and public opinions of Iranians in recent years it is fair to claim that these two groups combined make up at least 60% (and most likely 80%) of the population. Hence it is accurate to label the regime an oligarchy, which means a minority rule.
On the other hand the two factions will compete for electoral positions openly and will tolerate each other in a manner similar to a two-party democratic system. The Guardian Council will no longer disqualify the members of the reform faction but it will most likely veto any attempts by the parliament to bring the seculars or nationalists into the Oligarchy. The relative share of each faction/party's seats in the parliament will be partially determined through periodic elections. The silent majority, which is excluded from power, will nevertheless enjoy some leverage because of its ability to determine the faith of political elections in favor of one group or the other as well as its potential for mass protests.
A two-party oligarchy is only one of the possible outcomes of the current power struggle. Two other alternatives are worth mentioning. One possible alternative is for the hardliners to purge the reformists and gain complete control over all three branches of the government. This will be a major setback for Iran's political evolution towards democracy. As mentioned earlier the regime itself will face a growing crisis of legitimacy and will have to resort to more and more repression against the growing demand for political freedom. In addition to the purged reformists, new political groups with secular ideologies might also join the ranks of the political opposition. A hardliner takeover, will only intensify Iran's political crisis in the long run. The likelihood of this scenario is smaller than a two-party Oligarchy.
The third possible outcome is a showdown between the two factions that leads to a victory for the reformists. This can only happen if large numbers of ordinary people organize large-scale political protests in support of reformists and do so in such a magnitude that renders the use of force by hardliners politically infeasible. However, because of their ineffectiveness and their close association with the Islamic regime, the reformers do not enjoy widespread support among ordinary Iranians. They are mostly viewed as the softer side of the Islamic regime rather than a clear alternative to it. This perceived image discourages many people from joining a mass political movement under the leadership of the reformists. Consequently the likelihood of this outcome under current political conditions is also small.
Finally, it must be said that a two-party oligarchy, if it happens to be the outcome of Iran's current crisis, will not necessarily be stable. The hardliners and reformists disagree on several fundamental issues on the role of people in the political process. The reformists might at any time be tempted to exit the oligarchy and opt for closer cooperation with secular and nationalist groups. The silent majority might also become more vocal in its demand for political participation and give rise to new political contestants. A two-party oligarchy will most likely be a transitional stage towards "something else."
Nader Habibi is an economist with concentration on the Persian Gulf economies. He works and lives near Philadelphia.
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