Prague, 26 February 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Iranians elect their own local officials today in a nationwide vote which both reformers and conservatives regard as a referendum on the policies of moderate President Mohammad Khatami.
The vote gives Iranians their first chance since the founding of the Islamic Republic 20 years ago to elect city and town council officials who, until now, have been appointed by the country's ruling clerical establishment.
Analysts say that reformers regard the vote as a key opportunity to take power at the local level out of the hands of conservatives and strengthen their own chances of winning parliamentary elections next year. For the same reason, conservatives who now dominate parliament are determined to hold on to as much of their grassroots authority as possible.
Kenneth Katzmann, a senior analyst at the Congressional Research Service in Washington, D.C., says that the local elections are one more test of strength in the ongoing power struggle between the two sides. That struggle has openly dominated Iranian politics since Khatami's landslide election in May 1997, on a promise to create a more open society.
Kenneth Katzmann said: "It's mainly a test of political strength. [Khatami] wants a good turnout and pro-Khatami candidates to win a majority of seats and [in] this way he can have a little more confidence in proposing bold initiatives that the hardliners may not be enthusiastic about."
Katzmann says both reformists and conservatives see the elections as a kind of referendum on Khatami's program of increasingly involving average Iranians in policy making, which until now has been the preserve of conservative officials. That program is bitterly opposed by predominantly clerical conservatives who want to maintain their own strict interpretation of the Islamic Republic's theocracy.
But while both sides are looking to tomorrow's poll as a referendum on Khatami, it may be only an imperfect one at best. The elections are not party-based and are pitting local personalities who often have campaigned on specific local issues. The Islamic Republic's conservative or reformist political organizations are endorsing, but not fielding, candidates. That means that the rivalry between conservatives and reformists may be important in deciding the results of some races but largely irrelevant in others.
Kenneth Katzmann said, "I think that [the motivation of voters] is going to vary depending on where you are. Certainly at the very low levels of constituency the elections will be decided on local issues, but in many of the larger cities, especially Tehran and Esfahan and Shiraz, this really will be seen in a national context."
Imperfect referendum or not, the upcoming poll has already sparked bitter fighting between Iran's conservative and reformist camps, including outbreaks of pre-election violence. A gunman on a motorcycle yesterday sprayed bullets at the Tehran election headquarters of a party of technocrats known as the Executives of Construction which backs moderate candidates. There were no casualties in the incident. Two days ago a clash in a provincial town left two people in critical condition from knife wounds.
The run-up to the election has also seen contradictory claims between conservatives and reformists over who will oversee the voting and who can run as candidates. The confusion has only been heightened by the fact that the Islamic Republic's constitution authorizes local elections but is vague on how they should be held.
Reformists had hoped the local polls would be the first since the Revolution to do away with the practice of pre-screening candidates for their faith in the country's supreme clerical leadership, a test which has barred many technocrats from parliament. But the conservatives won the battle, assuring that all candidates are pre-approved by local selection boards approved by the government.
Katzmann calls the pre-screening a setback for the moderates:
"The hardliners, fearing that Khatami would win these elections [overwhelmingly], asserted their power to screen candidates in these elections. So that is definitely part of the power struggle that is going on in Iran where the hardliners do not want to have this be a big show of support for Mohammad Khatami."
The pre-election maneuvering has also seen both the reformist-controlled Ministry of Interior and the conservative-dominated parliament claim they alone should supervise the elections. The parliament has appointed a hard-line Supervision Board which has sought to exclude several leading reformers from the running in the country's key race to control Tehran.
The Supervision Board disqualified 12 reformists from running in the capital, including key Khatami ally Abdollah Nouri, whom the parliament stripped of his post as interior minister last year in a major power struggle. Outraged reformers insisted on the creation of an arbitration board to resolve the dispute. But the Supervision Board has since refused to recognize the arbiters' decision to let the candidates run, promising an extended political battle over the Tehran election results if the reformers win.
Ironically, while conservatives and reformers battle over the local elections, many voters are said to be apathetic about the poll and analysts expect turnout to be low. Election organizers originally hoped to see some one million candidates take part but less than 300,000 are competing. President Khatami has sought to generate excitement over the vote by urging people to participate and, in his words, "to assume an active political role in deciding their destiny in the cultural, social, economic and political fields."
But it is unclear how much authority the government will actually turn over to local officials once the voting is finished. The constitution grants little power to local councils so the election is not likely to bring immediate changes in Iran.
Still, the stakes are high. Moderates want to turn the councils into more powerful institutions and use them as a platform for future reforms. That is why Khatami has invoked Iranians' constitutional right to have local elections after it had been ignored by his predecessors for 20 years. And that is also why the conservatives are doing all they can to keep the moderates from winning the polls.