Thursday, February 14, 2008

Democratic Sham? : Part 3 of "Understanding Iran"

Part 1 of this series on "Understanding Iran" appears here. Part 2 is here.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the President of Iran was elected in 2005 for a four-year term of office on a universal franchise of the residents of Iran (male and female). A President can only serve for one set of successive terms. But this provision appears to allow a President who has already served an eight year period to serve more terms as long as these are not successive.

The Majilis, Iran's parliament of 290 members are also elected on a universal franchise. Elections are currently pending. There is also a wide range of elections for Local and Town Councils under the same form of franchise.

BUT - there are a series of controls and restraints upon the above operations, which undermine the democratic credentials of the Iranian constitutional and political system. These are covered next.

The Democratic Deficit

This arises from Iran being an Islamic Republic with strong theocratic controls.

(1) The Supreme Leader And The Assembly Of Experts: It isn't the elected President in association with the Majilis who has the final say within the Iranian system. This position is held by the Supreme Leader. Currently this is Atytollah Khamanei. He was elected for life in 1989 by the Assembly of Experts, who consist of 86 Mullahs and are the only body who can intervene to replace the Supreme Leader. The Supreme Leader is commander-in-chief and appoints the heads of the judicary, the police, the military and the State radio. He also operates overall supervision under the provisions of the Constitution.

(2) The Guardians Of The Constitution: The Assembly of Experts are themselves an elected body, but the whole of the electoral system (including elections of the President and the Majilis) is subject to a significant power of veto by a body called "The Guardians of the Constitution". This is made up of twelve jurists. Six have specialisms in Islam and are appointed by the Supreme Leader, whilst another six are jurists whose names are put forward by the Head of the Judiciary (who is himself appointed by the Supreme Leader) and are then elected by the Majilis. The Guardians are ruling out a whole host of candidates at the moment who had intended to stand in the General Election for the Majilis. In 2004, some 2,000 such candidates were excluded. Those barred from standing are mainly radicals who wish to see reforms within the political system and are more likely to be supporters of progressive social reforms. The Guardians also supervise the operations of elections. This gives them openings to further interfere in the electoral process.

(3) Presidential Powers Over The Majilis: Although the President's grant of power under the Constitution is secondary to that of Supreme Leader, he still has a position of significance in that he (a) appoints the Heads of a wide range of posts and Ministries outside of those controlled by the Supreme Leader and (b) can block legislation passed by the Majilis. Although there has been a recent case in which the Supreme Leader has acted to override such a Presidential veto.

(4) Loss Of Civil Liberties: For democracy to flourish, there is the need for a wide range of freedoms (a) to express conflicting viewpoints, (b) to enable people to organise into competing political parties and pressure groups and (c) to be able to demonstrate peacefully for their concerns. Iran has a poor record in these areas and the situation is currently worsening. Human Rights Watch covers the situation in Iran on pages 472 to 477 of its "2008 World Report". It set the scene with the following comments - "Respect for basic human rights in Iran, especially freedom of expression and assembly, continued to deteriorate in 2007. The government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad routinely detains people for peacefully exercising their rights to freedom of expression and association, and regularly tortures and mistreats those detained. The judiciary, which is accountable to the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, is responsible for many serious human rights violations. The government increasingly cites "national security" as a prexext for silencing expressions of dissent or calls for reform."

(5) Extra Restrictions On Women's Rights: Although women have the vote and a small number have been elected to the Majilis, they are excluded from seeking the offices of Supreme Leader, President or membership of the theocratic bodies mentioned above. They are also invariably barred from associating with men in large groups, whether this on demonstations or in attending football matches.

The Dichotomy At The Heart Of The Iranian System

The Iranian Constitution attempts to marry together a system of regular and universal voting, with theocratic controls. This is an arrangement which can only work smoothly when the bulk of the electorate find themselves in conformity with the norms and values of their religious leadership. When wide groups feel economically deprived and Iran's young population throws up student groups with radical viewpoints and global pressures import values of free association; then social tensions are likely to advance. Pressures can then emerge to improve the democratic arrangements and to try to use them to usher in social change. Whilst some elements of the clerical and economic elites may then seek to compromise with such pressures, others will be given to using and extending theocratic controls. Such tensions could arise, especially, around a future Presidential election and over whom is entitled to stand. As indicated in Part 2, there is also a strong sense of national indentity throughout Iran. When the country is under pressure (as in the Iraq-Iran War) such nationalism can be mobilised for internal political ends as it was by theocratic elements in the 1980s. This is relevant to the conflict between the USA and Iran, which we will examine in a later section.


hass said...

Though it is certainly true that the Iranian system restricts who can participate in elections by pre-vetting them, that's pretty much true in all systems.

In the US this is accomplished through informal, non-transparent mechanisms. For example, the Republicans and Democrats control the drawing of voter district boundary lines, and shape each district specifically to exclude third parties. Walter Karp's "Indispensable Enemies" is a classic on this topic. Corporate money has a way of keeping the "riff-raff" out of elections too.

Also, Iran's experiment with democracy is quite young, and hampered by the legacy of 2000+ years of absolute monarchy, not to mention foreign plots.

On the plus side, Irans government is more representative than it ever was, the people genuinely vote, the elections are contested bitterly, People (particularly women) are better off (live longer, better educated, better access to healtcare, etc.) and in short, Iran is far less repressive than many US allied states in the region.

Harry Barnes said...

Hass: I will extend my analysis on Iranian politics in the next section. It might seem somewhat more acceptable from your perspective. But I feel that the conclusion I reached shows a fundamental tension for Iranian democracy. I am aware, however, of the counter-considerations raised by writers such as Dilip Hiro. The USA and many others have an alternative democratic deficit, which arises from the distortions of what (in shorthand) might be termed its plutocracy.

hass said...

I don't deny the tensions -- the Iranian constitution lists two sources of absolute final authority: God and the People which is a source of tension (Some there however say that this is not necessarily a tension)

The point is that any young system of government has these contraditions and tensions when starting out -- Iran is no exception. Again, taking the US as an example, after the 1779 war of independence some people wanted to create an American monarchy. Othere "tensions" in the founding of the United States were only resolved through a bloody civil war.

We in the future simply assume that our current state of political affairs were somehow pre-ordained to be that way --- but they weren't. It took a lot of "tensions" and blood before we can call ourselves a democracy.

Harry Barnes said...

Hass : Excuse the delay in this reply.

In seeking to advance democracy and resolve tensions inside political systems, we DO need to decide whose side we are on - even if we only provide them with "critical" support. I am for overcoming or neutralising the theocratic aspects of the Iranian political stystem. At the moment, the multi-faceted reformists seem to provide the more feasible avenue for such change.

The fact the I see shortcomings in the plutocratic aspects of US politics and dislike the fact the in the UK the Prime Minister holds prerogative powers in his hands which should go to parliament, does not detract from what I feel is needed in Iran. Although (amongst other considerations) internal US and UK democratic shortcomings do add to my opposition to military and economic sactions being used against Iran.

Naj said...

to this discussion, I like to add, that the notion of democracy in Iran (or in any oriental society) is fundamentally different from that in occidental ones.

I think the cultural skeleton of a nation, as old as Iran (or China) needs to be traced back by a few millenniums.

It is often overlooked that the theocracy in Iran has played a significant role in bringing "democracy" to Iran(during teh Qajar dynasty)--although it has also plagued it.

The concept of "shora" (assembly of consulting heads) is very much at the core of the early Islamic practice. The dictatorial regimes in the middle east are not far different from those in Russia for example. The feudalist roots of dictatorship in Iran ought not to be mistaken with religious ones. But it is important to also notice that the clergy itself is an integral part of a feudal system in Iran. Clergymen and kings are the symbols of two elite forces in the Iranian society, who have, at least since the Safavid dynasty, been interlocked in a bloody struggle for the "same" power: ruling the 'peasant' masses!

The bourgeoisie in Iran is _still_ considered as a lower social class.