Recent steps by Iran's executive branch to control who runs for the councils -- combined with previous efforts to further curb their powers -- suggest that voter participation might continue to fall despite their political significance.
Registration for prospective candidates for December's third round of council elections began on October 16 and will continue until October 22.
The races are not expected to attract the prominent names associated with national races -- such as the legislature or the Assembly of Experts. Nevertheless, some of those who have registered have achieved a modicum of recognition, including Mujtaba Alai, deputy head of the presidential protocol office, and Tehran police chief Morteza Talai, reported by Baztab on October 17 and ISNA on October 9.
The Interior Ministry conducts all the country's elections and, in most cases, it is the 12-member Guardians Council that vets prospective candidates and has supervisory powers. But it is the legislature that has supervisory and vetting powers in the municipal-council elections. This has previously given candidates who might be rejected on factional grounds a much better chance of qualifying.
It became increasingly clear by late September, when the Central Committee for Monitoring Council Elections began its activities, that this firewall was crumbling. The central committee comprised five fundamentalist legislators: Tehran's Hussein Fadai, Islamabad-i Gharb's Heshmatollah Falahat-Pisheh, Malekan's Salman Khodadadi, Karaj's Rashid Jalali-Jafari, and Kerman's Mohammad Ali Movahedi. It selected 90 people from 27 provinces to monitor the elections, and nearly all of them were fundamentalists.
The committee claimed that it consulted with parliamentarians about their constituencies. But reformists said the choices were made when the legislature was in recess, and they were ignored. One lawmaker, Mohammad Reza Tabesh of Yazd Province, said he is the only legislator from his province who is not on the provincial monitoring committee, "Etemad-i Melli" reported on September 24.
Only three of the 90 were from the pro-reform faction. They withdrew from the provincial monitoring committee a few days later, objecting to what they feared would be a biased screening of prospective candidates, "Etemad-i Melli" reported on September 26. Limiting Local Autonomy
The municipal councils already have limited powers and responsibilities. They deal with issues like construction permits, garbage collection, and roadwork. The central government is responsible for everything else -- such as education, electricity, and the provision of water.
President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's administration tried to reduce the powers even more through a new law on city and village councils. Under the amended law, the councils would be subordinate to the Interior Ministry and would require its approval before performing many of their functions.
A spokesman for the Executives of Construction Party asked whether "the problems of our country [will] be solved by turning the national government into a mobile provincial planning council."
Councils also currently select mayors. But under the proposed law, the Interior Ministry would essentially perform that function.
A member of the Tehran council, Hassan Bayadi, warned that the objective of the new law is to eliminate the councils completely, "Etemad" reported on May 23. Another legislator, Kazem Jalali, said the provisions of the law would run counter to the constitution, "Hambastegi" reported on June 1.
With roughly two months to go before the elections, it appears that the law has been allowed to fade into the background. Co-opting Provincial Institutions
President Ahmadinejad is doing other things that could weaken existing provincial government institutions and create new ones that are more closely connected to the executive branch. It is the presidential administration -- through the Interior Ministry -- that appoints provincial governors-general. On October 17, Ahmadinejad issued a directive that linked every provincial office of the Management and Planning Organization with the provincial governor-general. The head of the Management and Planning Organization, Farhad Rahbar, has objected to this development, and the legislature declared its intention to review the plan for any illegalities. If this measure is implemented, it will strengthen the Interior Ministry's hold over provincial affairs.
Ahmadinejad's frequent trips to the provinces also serve to undermine municipal councils and other local institutions. As his staff collects citizens' written complaints and he deals with their problems on a case-by-case basis, the president shows that he can provide immediate relief and is a man of action. Already weakened through legislation and without the financial resources of the executive branch, the councils are stuck with the difficult task of developing macro-policies that help entire communities, not just one citizen.
A spokesman for the Executives of Construction Party, Hussein Marashi, asked whether "the problems of our country [will] be solved by turning the national government into a mobile provincial planning council." He called that the administration's biggest achievement. But Marashi added that Iran must be the only place in the world where the central government takes on responsibilities that normally fall under the purview of the provinces, "Etemad-i Melli" reported on September 16. Whence And Whither?
The concept of councils at the local level was enshrined in the Iranian Constitution of 1979. But the first council elections did not take place until 20 years later. Then-President Mohammad Khatami's administration sought to decentralize the state apparatus and increase public participation in political affairs and, in general, it emphasized the significance of the councils.
Scholar Kian Tajbakhsh asserted at the August 2006 Conference on Iranian Studies in London that the reformists viewed the councils as civil-society organizations. But he noted that reformists did not clarify their agenda, address legal ambiguities, distinguish councils' responsibilities, or even place local institutions in the broader context of an authoritarian state. Tajbakhsh said "energy" for the local councils was closely connected with the wider, national reform movement. When that movement faded, he argued, so did local councils' momentum.
Public disillusionment with the councils appears to have led to a sharp fall in voter turnout in 2003. The decline was most acute in major cities like Isfahan, Mashhad, Shiraz, and Tehran -- where turnout was between 12 percent and 20 percent. At the same time, reformists fared poorly in the big cities, although turnout in other parts of the country was around 50 percent.
It would be reasonable to expect a continuing decline in official turnout figures if people reacted unfavorably to government-imposed restrictions. But three factors suggest it is too early to make such a prediction. First, the government controls the election process entirely, so outside observers will find it difficult to detect fraud. Indeed, a number of prominent Iranians remarked on the prevalence of fraud in the 2005 presidential election.
Second, the holding of simultaneous elections -- for the councils, the Assembly of Experts, and four parliamentary seats -- is likely to increase overall turnout.
Finally, the government is basing its population estimates on a 1996 census. The general manager of the Interior Ministry's elections office, Ali Asqar Karandish, said that population changes in big cities are far from clear, "Farhang-i Ashti" reported on September 21.
Regardless of the final outcome, the Ahmadinejad administration is likely to continue its effort to extend and strengthen its control throughout the country. It has met some resistance from the legislature -- even from conservative parliamentarians -- but it has up to seven more years to keep trying.