If politics is local, postpone elections

Lost amidst the usual  bluster about nukes and sanctions, a fairly important headline flew under the media radar last week: the Iranian parliament passed a bill that will postpone (FA) municipal elections scheduled to be held at the end of this year. Instead, the terms of the sitting city council members will be extended by roughly two years, and then in 2012-13 fresh elections will be held. So is this another electoral putsch orchestrated by the regime hardliners? The beginning of a ‘one man, one vote, one time’ electoral system? Thankfully the Islamic Republic has not yet crossed the threshold for full-blown, unapologetic autocracy, but the underlying reasons for this electoral postponement are less benign than its backers would have you think.

First, the official reason. Iranian elections are a complicated affair. On top of the hyrda-headed power structure, the direct/indirect/vetted methods by which these bodies are elected, and of course the paradox of dual sources of political authority (popular will vs. religious legitimacy), Iran has to plan–and one may read into the word ‘plan’ whatever you would like–elections almost every year. 2005 presidential election (4-year term); 2006 municipal councils (4-year term) and Assembly of Experts (8-year term), 2008 parliament (4-year term), and 2009 presidential again as the cycle resumes.  All this planning, vetting, and counting gets exhausting (not to mention expensive), so why not jigger things ever so slightly so this only happened every two years? Remember when the Summer and Winter Olympics happened the same year? Basically this is the opposite of that.

I say this without a hint of sarcasm, but I can understand these reasons. There had been talk about moving elections around for some time in Iran, even before last June’s presidential election, so the decision to move around the election dates is not entirely sinister. Under the new plan people will vote for president and municipal councils simultaneously, and there will now be major elections in Iran every two years. (Important side note: the original plan was also to have Assembly of Experts and parliamentary elections at the same time, but I haven’t been able to find out if the newly-approved law will do this as well).

Plus, extending the terms of the current municipal councils isn’t exactly doing Ahmadinejad any favors. His candidates fared badly back in the 2006 elections and he now has to live with another 2-3 years of the Tehran city council stacked somewhat against his favor. Ahmadinejad was able to get his sister, Parvin, elected to the Tehran council in this race (despite her complete lack of political experience), but his rival Mohammad-Bagher Qalibaf will remain mayor until the next elections. (Though to play devil’s advocate with myself, Qalibaf has been conspicuously silent over the past year….)

Still, keeping municipal councils intact for another few years is a welcome alternative to hardliners than risking the possible consequences of an election in the current political atmosphere. The opposition has been forced out of the streets, and campaign events, even of the small local variety, could give the opposition the direction and outlet it so sorely needs. The regime has gone to pains to subdue the opposition, and the last thing is wants is to risk their precarious hold on public order with mass disqualifications or curious election results.

Thankfully this does not yet seem to be part of a calculated plan to do away with elected local councils altogether. Given the important place these councils have in the reformist plan dating back to Khatami, this would not be unthinkable. Although the idea for popularly-elected local councils pre-dated him, Khatami often emphasized the need for local participation  when he campaigned for president in 1997. He promised to hold the first such elections if he became president and in 1999 votes were cast for over 30,000 seats from more than 900 local councils, with close to three-quarters of votes were cast for reformists.

Since then hardliners have caught on to this reformist strategy and made it more difficult for anything resembling the 1999 elections to happen again. Aside from the usual practice of disqualifying candidates, since coming to power in 2005 Ahmadinejad has steadily replaced many of the local and provincial appointed officials with his own, often inexperienced replacements, in effect trying to stamp out the advances reformists had made.

So where does all this lead us? For the time being at least, the bill to postpone municipal elections is not a seismic reshaping of the electoral arena in the favor of hardliners. Though on the other hand, the reasons for doing so are not quite the innocent bureaucratic reasons they might have you believe. More likely than anything, this is part of a larger effort that has been in place for years to gradually push back against the institutional reformist advances made during Khatami’s tenure. At this very moment another front in this effort is being fought out over the battle with the private universities (Azad). The streets are quiet, the opposition manageable, and hardliners can return to their task of consolidating power
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