With Reformist Parties Banned, now what?

Last week, Iran’s two main reformist parties–the Islamic Iran Participation Front and Mojahedin of the Islamic Revolution of Iran–were ordered closed by Iran’s Article 10 Commission on political parties, falling under the jurisdiction of the Interior Ministry. The groups were charged with violating Article 16 of Iran’s consitition, and in the words of the ministry’s spokesman, are charged with “violating the sovereignty of the country, spreading accusations and lies, undermining national unity, and planning the breakup of the country.” To become official the ban must be upheld by the Judiciary, but given the Judiciary’s lack of independence–the head of the Judiciary is appointed by the Supreme Leader–and its record of siding with hardliners since the June 2009 election, this ban is likely to become official. The outlawing of these two parties is surely cause for concern for the reformists, but given the nature of political parties in Iran, and the political environment in which they have been operating, this move is not as drastic as it may seem.

To give some background, in Iran there are no real political parties, at least not in the standard, political science textbook definition. Of the near 250 parties in Iran, the soon-to-be-banned Participation Front comes the closest to representing a Western-style political party. Established in 1998 to be the driving force of Khatami’s reformist movement in parliament, it has various offices spread throughout the country and can boast a more established organization and mobilization structure than most other parties. Yet it is one of many reformist ‘parties’ in the Iranian political scheme, and thanks to the backlash against reformism during the later years of Khatami’s presidency, has been unable to establish itself as a central force for reformism.

By and large what takes the place of political parties are clerical and political factions which, come election time, put together a list of their approved/sponsored candidates. These factions tend to be loosely-organized and personality-driven, and their activities basically limited to the period right before elections when putting together their candidate lists. Political ideology does play some role in what candidates are sponsored by what lists, but commitment to the principles or campaign manifestos is less a factor than outmaneuvering rival factions. While publicized lists of approved candidates can be useful to voters, particularly in areas such as Tehran where voters must select 33 members of parliament, ‘party’ or faction affiliation does not show up anywhere on the ballot.

This is not to say that political parties, and the bans on the two reformist ones, are totally inconsequential. These parties will no longer be allowed to hold meetings or publicize approved lists of candidates in future elections. Still, given the weakness of political parties generally in Iran, this should not be seen as a crushing defeat for reformists. Not only are reformist-minded MPs scattered within various political and clerical factions, even those that are affiliated with the two banned parties will not be automatically ousted from parliament on account of their ties to a ‘banned’ party. (However, whether they will be able to run again in the next parliamentary election is another matter.)

In some regards, the ban on these two is almost a formality. Both parties had been de facto shut down since the June election. Their members have been harassed and imprisoned, offices shut down, and newspapers banned. Tellingly, right before the ban on these parties was announced, three of their senior members were sentenced to 6 years in prison and 10 years suspension from political activity. Even before the 2009 presidential election both parties, and reformists in general, had to deal with mass disqualifications of potential candidates. They have continued to find ways to operate, and even in the face of an official ban will continue to do so. For example, the Freedom Movement (affiliated with Ebrahim Yazdi) has been officially banned for years but continues to function, albeit in a limited manner.

What this ban will profoundly affect, though, is reformist strategy. After the Iranian new year holiday ended, Musavi held several meetings with a reformist faction of parliament where he stressed the importance of the legislative branch. Coming at a time when the green movement was re-thinking its strategy after the green movement’s disappointing showing on the 22nd of Bahman (11 February), and parliament was engaged in a bitter battle with Ahmadinejad over subsidies, this may have been the beginnings of a concerted push for ‘pressure from within’ by reformists. Reformists already had to struggled to place members in parliament in the face of heavy disqualifications by the Guardian Council in the last parliament elections, and they will almost surely face that problem magnified come the next elections in 2012 (although there is debate about pushing this date back to coincide with the presidential election of 2013).

Reformist leaders like Musavi, Karrubi, and Khatami, prefer a more gradual approach to reformism, based on working within the system rather than ditching it wholesale. Musavi in particular has stressed a return to the founding ideals of the Islamic Republic, and has argued that the system has been perverted by hardliners who have hijacked it for their own personal and political gain. More radical members of the opposition, however, are losing patience with this approach. Disenchanted, and younger opposition members in particular, do not share this same nostalgia for the early days of the revolution. When political parties are banned, reformist candidates not allowed to stand for office, and elections engineered, the argument for reform from within are increasingly falling on deaf ears.

3 Responses to “With Reformist Parties Banned, now what?”

  1. One Week After the Executions « HGU's Blog Says:

    […] for the Mojahedin of the Islamic Revolution Party–one of the two major reformist ones banned several weeks ago–was arrested and the war of wards against Musavi, the leader of the […]

  2. Part I: Factions Taking Aim at Ahmadinejad « HGU's Blog Says:

    […] In Iran political parties don’t function like they do in the West, so it’s difficult to give an exact percentage breakdown of party or […]

  3. Part I: The Establishment Takes Aim at Ahmadinejad « ryangwhite Says:

    […] In Iran political parties don’t function like they do in the West, so it’s difficult to give an exact percentage breakdown of party or […]

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