The last president?
The latest rigged elections have produced a predictable result as Supreme Leader Khamenei consolidates his power, says Yassamine Mather.
Ahmadinejad trumped by Khamenei
Iran’s Islamic constitution automatically bars anyone objecting to the theocratic nature of the state from standing for election and, as a result, parliamentary and presidential elections have often been used by the electorate to express their discontent with the more powerful factions of the religious state. Since 1997 this has been expressed in votes for ‘reformist’ candidates - not necessarily to support ‘reformism’, but, since it represented the lesser of two evils, to express discontent with more conservative factions.
The parliamentary election just completed was different: for the first time in more than a decade the choice was between complex lists of conservative factions only. Like Shia Islam, itself the product of factional infighting, over the last 12 months - as ‘reformists’ were manoeuvred out of the official political scene - the conservatives and ‘principlists’ split and split again. In the words of one ayatollah: “We wanted to create a unified, single principlist faction, but we ended with 16 to 17 factions fighting the principlist corner.”
There was no doubt the turnout would be abysmal and this is precisely what happened. The supreme leader had made this an election about ‘honour’ and pride, and his supporters predicted exactly the percentage of the population that had participated in the elections: 64%. As if by magic, the electoral commission declared this to be the official figure - mere hours after the booths closed. Yet many Iranians believed these figures were false; some of those who had ventured out onto the streets had already posted photos of deserted polling stations on the internet.
Foreign reporters, under carefully controlled official guidance, were taken by bus to selected polling stations to be shown the queues of those waiting to vote. However, this failed to impress the foreign press corps - and, of course, in the absence of independent observers and opinion polls, it is impossible to say whether the official figures are correct. The ‘reformist’ opposition, together with the liberals and the left, had largely boycotted the vote and were quick to find contradictions in the official story.
They pointed to a gaffe made on live TV by Seyed Solat Mortazavi, the head of the interior ministry’s election centre. On state television, Mortazavi quoted the interior minister, Mostafa Mohammad-Najjar, as saying that the turnout was almost 34% - but instantly ‘corrected’ this to 64%.
The other blunder came from the Mehr news agency, which had reported 373,000 people eligible for voting in the province of Ilam. The same agency reported 380,000 had voted there. Mehr later amended the figure on its website to 280,000. Another news outlet, Baztab, reported that the number of eligible voters was 2.5 million less than were eligible in 2009. There are also reports of cash payments made in the provincial cities in a desperate effort to entice people to vote. Apparently the going rate in Fars province (Shiraz) was 30,000 tomans: $15 at the current exchange rate.
Ahmadinejad the loser
Just as the turnout was foreseen with remarkable accuracy by the supreme leader and his allies, so too was the result. The various factions of those loyal to Ali Khamenei have likely picked up at least 75% of the seats in the majlis (parliament).
The big loser, then, is president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad; his increasingly open rupture with the supreme leader has effectively ended in his defeat and, while he himself does not go back before the electorate until 2013, he now faces strong opposition both from above and from the next rung down the Iranian constitutional ladder. Both in Tehran, where he has traditionally fared worse, and in the provinces, where his populist rhetoric has more purchase, he has been comprehensively beaten - legitimately or otherwise.
If that was not bad enough, even the outgoing parliament, in which he had wider support, is to call a hearing to discuss the hapless president’s handling of the economy and foreign affairs. The official unemployment figure hit 15% last year, and Ahmadinejad’s decision to cut food and fuel subsidies caused widespread discontent - given how reliant an increasingly impoverished population was on them. The concession - a monthly cash payment to every citizen worth $45 - is equally criticised for contributing to spiralling inflation, which is officially estimated at 22.5%.
It is unlikely that this hearing would result - as it could, if Khamenei gave the nod - in Ahmadinejad’s impeachment. Nevertheless, it would have at least two major uses for the conservatives. Firstly, it would pile further pressure on an already reeling president, and reduce further his room for manoeuvre by effectively putting him on notice. Secondly, it would divert the popular anger at the subsidy cuts into safe channels - Khamenei and his allies will be only too aware of the contribution of similar policies to the unrest in Tunisia and Egypt.
It remains to be seen, however, whether Ahmadinejad is truly down and out. Though constitutionally disbarred from running for a third term, and surrounded by enemies, this wily political operator may yet have enough tricks up his sleeve to avoid political oblivion. “Ahmadinejad’s camp has not been demolished. We have to wait and see what happens after the new parliament convenes in June,” one analyst told Reuters.
Speculation abounds as to Khamenei’s long game. One popular theory is that he wishes to abolish the position of president altogether. Last year, he suggested that the selection of a prime minister from the majlis itself would be an improvement.
From his perspective, locked in a war of attrition with Ahmadinejad, the appeal is obvious. “Khamenei will essentially have everything he does approved and pushed through parliament by his allies,” an exiled reformist told the New York Times. And what is the point of being supreme leader if not?
Certainly, for the time being, he appears to have achieved a measure of success. First, an alliance of convenience with Ahmadinejad and his faction allowed him to neutralise the ‘reformist’ ‘opposition’; after facing down the mass protests of 2009, outmanoeuvring Mir-Hossein Moussavi and Mehdi Karroubi, the cringing leaders of the green movement, was a simple enough matter. The result was this year’s election: purged even of the most pliant of opposition candidates.
In fact, as far as the death of the ‘reformists’ is concerned, one event in this election put the icing on the sorry cake. The opposition boycott, if all these pictures of vacant polling stations are to be believed, achieved some measure of success; but one man who did manage to put a cross next to a name was Mohammad Khatami, former ‘reformist’ president and now a spokesman for the green movement, whose visit to the polling booth was gratefully covered by Iranian state media. His supporters are angry, although those close to him argue either that he voted to try to prevent another crackdown on ‘reformists’ and liberals, or that he was personally coerced into doing so. Readers may decide.
Now that he has worked Ahmadinejad, likewise, into a hole, the way should be clear for the authority of Khamenei to become as absolute as his honorary title suggests. For many Iranians, there are echoes here of the last years of the shah. After years of pretending Iran had two parties, Adl and Iran Novin, albeit both monarchist in their politics, the shah decided in 1975 to abolish both of them and merge them into a single party, Rastakhiz. He said: “What is the point of having a ‘yes’ and an ‘of course’ party? It is better to have one party. Those who believe in the Iranian constitution, the monarchy and the principles of the White Revolution must join the new party. Those who do not believe in these principles are traitors who must either go to prison or leave the country.”
A week before the recent elections Khamenei made a similarly chilling speech: the results of the elections are obvious; he will have a much more unified majlis; there may be 16 or 17 principlist factions in the new parliament, but they will all be united in their absolute obedience of the supreme leader; and every faction will be too weak to propose or do anything.
For now, the supreme leader has got his way. Craven ‘reformists’ will not stop him; and imperialist sanctions, sabotage and war will only make things worse. Only the Iranian masses can put an end to this blood-soaked regime.