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Iran: Election Law Change Mooted

By Ali Kheradpir, Paris (Source: Mianeh)


Proposed law is unclear but may lessen authority of the supreme leader.


A woman voting in Tehran during June 2009 presidential elections


Proposals are emerging for electoral reform in Iran following last year's disputed presidential election that could weaken the power of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei but hardliners could stop it in its track.


The proposal foresees the establishment of an independent National Election Commission which would not only take over organising the elections from the interior ministry but would also assume the present role of the Guardian Council in vetting and approving candidates.


It is being prepared by the Expediency Council - an assembly appointed by Khamenei - and is believed to have the support of its head, the influential former president Hashemi Rafsanjani.


Akbar Torkan, an adviser to the head of the Expediency Council, says the purpose of the proposal is to regain the trust of the people, which was lost in the aftermath of the disputed re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2009. Since Ahmadinejad came to power in 2005, reformists have lodged several complaints about vote fraud and vote rigging.


Just before the June 2009 presidential election, Ahmadinejad appointed Sadeq Mahsouli, who was his campaign manager in 2005, as his interior minister. The opposition believes that widespread vote fraud took place in that election.


Voting in Zahedan (southeastern Iran) during June 2009 presidential elections


At present the Guardian Council of 12 jurists - six clerics appointed by the supreme leader and six jurists nominated by the head of the judiciary and elected by parliament - vets anyone who wants to run for president, the Majlis (parliament) or the Assembly of Experts. Only after the council finds them in compliance with the political and ideological standards set by the state are they allowed to stand.


In the past, the Guardian Council has disqualified several reformist candidates. Before the 2008 parliamentary elections, out of 1,700 candidates in Tehran alone, 890 were disqualified. This happened in the next round of Majlis elections as well.


In last year's presidential election, the Guardian Council openly threw its support behind Ahmadinejad.


Changing the election law has been one of the main demands of the opposition that has been protesting since that poll. Former president Mohammad Khatami, regarded as a reformist, said in a speech in January, "The way elections are held and their process has major problems which results in the people's loss of trust."


A woman voting in Tehran during June 2009 presidential elections


Opposition presidential candidate Mehdi Karroubi last month called for a referendum to be held on the role of the Guardian Council, hoping to reduce its influence. Any diminution in the Guardian Council's role would ultimately reduce the supreme leader's power.


However, the main critics of the government have not yet taken a stance on the electoral reform proposal.


Rafsanjani heads the Expediency Council and many believe that the proposal to revise the electoral law has his backing and has been prepared to help the country resolve the crisis over last year's disputed election.


Over the past nine months, Rafsanjani has been attacked by Khamenei's supporters, who accuse him of supporting the opposition. Rafsanjani has denied these allegations and says he is on very good terms with the supreme leader.


Rafsanjani's plan to change the electoral law was first revealed by Khamenei's representative, Hossein Shariatmadari, in the newspaper Kayhan on February 21. Shariatmadari denounced the proposal as "the continuation of the opposition's sedition" and "bypassing the Guardian Council and a violation of the constitution".


While many believe that Shariatmadari was directly expressing Khamenei's views, the matter is slightly more complicated this time.


Within hours of the publication of Shariatmadari's editorial, the secretary of the Expediency Council, Mohsen Rezai, who himself is a proponent of the plan, said, "The proposal to revise the electoral law has been undertaken by the Expediency Council upon a direct order from the leadership."


Voting in Kurdestan (western Iran) during June 2009 presidential elections


Khamenei himself has left people guessing about his position. In a February 25 address at which Rafsanjani was also present, Khamenei said, "All words and actions must first be deliberated upon to [see if they] correspond with the main duty of maintaining and strengthening the Islamic establishment before they are uttered and executed."


Ruhollah Hosseinian, a hardline member of the Iranian parliament, predicted, "Without a doubt this proposal will not be approved." Even if Hosseinian's prediction comes true, it looks unlikely that the Guardian Council will accept it.


Gholam Hossein Elham, a member of the Guardian Council who is also a close ally of Ahmadinejad, said in a speech at a meeting of the Ansar Hezbollah, a paramilitary group loyal to the supreme leader, "This proposal is in line with the seditious green coup plot. Hashemi [Rafsanjani] has always sought to bypass the Guardian Council."


Elham said, "Not only will the Majlis not approve this proposal but the leader will also reject it."


Reformists have sought to restrict the power of the Guardian Council in elections before and the Khatami government in 2001 presented the Majlis with legislation to amend the electoral law.


The Majlis approved the legislation but the Guardian Council rejected it, meaning it had no chance of becoming law and the administration withdrew the proposal.


Reformists are not the only ones seeking to revise the electoral law. From the time the Islamic Republic was established, the electoral law has been modified at least 40 times, mostly based on the political leaning of the Majlis or government in power at the time to benefit them at the next election.


Voting in Tehran during June 2009 presidential elections


Former Ahmadinejad intelligence and interior ministers were the ones who first proposed amending the current electoral law and this provided the Expediency Council with the justification it needed to undertake the proposal. However, they may not have anticipated that their suggestions on minor issues like holding different elections at the same time or changing the voting age would evolve into a plan for a National Election Commission.


The details and the likely fate of the latest proposal remain unclear. The National Election Commission would vet candidates-something the Guardian Council currently does under the notorious principle of Nezarat-e Estesvabi, Beneficent Supervision, meaning they are checked for their adherence to the idea of clerical rule.


Paris-based Iranian legal expert Abdolkarim Lahiji said, "Even if a proposal to change the electoral law is presented and approved, if Beneficent Supervision is still carried out in any form and by any organisation, that plan will amount to no more than a publicity stunt."


Ali Kheradpir is an Iranian journalist based in Paris.


This article is an abridged and translated version of the full original text published on the Persian pages of Mianeh, with editorial adjustments agreed with the writer made to provide clarity for English-language readers.


About Mianeh: Mianeh is a new independent web-based initiative run as a project by the Institute for War & Peace Reporting ( the award-winning non-profit media development organisation that works across the globe to platform local voices and promote international learning and engagement. Mianeh aims to be an open space for ideas, news and debate where writers in Iran can reach out to each other as well as to those outside the country who are interested in learning more about the vibrant and dynamic society that is Iran today.

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