Iran elects a new parliament on Friday. In stark contrast to U.S. elections, Iran's campaign began last weekend and ends Thursday night, lasting all of five days.
There are about 7,000 candidates running for 290 seats in the parliament. A non-elected council has disqualified nearly 2,000 would-be candidates, most of them reformers.
Iran's leaders say this is democracy. Critics in Iran say it's hardly democratic.
Iran doesn't look like a country about to hold a national election. There are some political banners and posters in Tehran; in other cities there are none. There are no debates — they are prohibited by election law. There are no political ads on television and almost no political rallies.
In downtown Tehran, the United Front of Fundamentalists held a meeting Tuesday to introduce some of its candidates. It began with a recitation of a passage from the Koran.
Hardly more than a few dozen people showed up.
Council Decides Who Runs
The Guardian Council holds the power to qualify or disqualify candidates. The council consists of six high-ranking clerics, and six jurists, appointed by the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Conservative candidates, such as Ali Abbaspour, defend this system.
"Always the parliament has a very important place in the Iranian political system," he says. "For this reason, all the time the representatives should be among the highest, the most qualified persons in Iranian society."
Reformers dominated Iran's parliament from the late 1990s until 2004. Since then the Guardian Council has moved aggressively to limit their chances. Still, disqualifying candidates is controversial here, and political pressure forced the council to reinstate nearly 1,000 it had initially barred from running.
Khomeini's Granddaughter Opposes System
Ayatollah Khomeini, who led the movement to overthrow the Shah of Iran 30 years ago, fashioned the key mechanisms of Islamic government here — a system his granddaughter is now campaigning against.
"It's illegal, it's not fair, and it's not competitive — the whole ... governing system of the country," Zahra Eshraghi says. "We can see in even small towns that there was a possibility that one candidate could be supported by the reformists or get the peoples' vote. Immediately that candidate was disqualified."
In Tehran this week, the reformists have been more active than their conservative opponents, holding more political meetings, which always come with popular or traditional Persian music.
Reformers Increasingly Unified
The reformists see an opportunity because there are five competing slates of conservative candidates — some of whom refer to themselves as principalists — and only two slates of reformers. Behzad Gareyazi, a candidate from the Coalition of Reformists, says they are more unified than in recent years.
"There is much more competition among principalists than what you can see among the reformists," Gareyazi says.
Heydar Pourian, the editor of Iran Economics Monthly, senses a lack of enthusiasm among Iran's voters because, he says, neither the government nor parliament is addressing the real economic troubles facing Iran, especially growing inflation, now at 20 percent.
"There's a large public apathy toward elections we feel this year, especially because of the economic problems, as well as the disappointment in the evolving democracy that we have," Pourian says.
Late Wednesday, the Supreme Leader urged Iranians to vote against those who are supported by Iran's enemies, by which he is widely understood to mean the United States.
Iranian Elections Provide View into Power Dynamics
hide captionTehran Mayor Mohammed Baqr Qalibaf, a former national chief of police and revolutionary guard soldier, was defeated in the June 2005 presidential poll. He is seen as a strong contender in the 2009 election for president.
Scott Peterson/Getty Images
hide captionAli Larijani is a candidate for the coalition list of conservative. Iranians will vote on March 14 to choose their eighth parliament since the 1979 Islamic revolution, in an election that is expected to see conservatives tighten their grip on the chamber.
hide captionIranian women distribute leaflets for reformist candidates in northwest Tehran on March 13, 2008.
Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images
Iranian women distribute leaflets for reformist candidates in northwest Tehran on March 13, 2008.
Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images
On the face of it, Iran's elections Friday would seem to have little relevance for anyone except the country's ruling clerics.
The religious board that supervises elections has disqualified thousands of independent and reform candidates. The list of those prevented from running in the election is said to include 19 members of parliament. At one point, the list included the grandson of the late Ayatollah Khomeini, the man who led the Iranian Revolution — although he has now been reinstated as a candidate.
But some observers say that even a flawed election can show the United States a lot about the dynamics of power among factions in the Iranian government.
Learning from the Election
"I don't mean to imply that Iranian elections are democratic, but the results are relevant," says Mohsen Milani, chairman of the department of government and international affairs at the University of South Florida in Tampa. "The elections can show who has the upper hand among Iran's governing elite," he says.
James Phillips, a research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, says the advantage is likely to belong to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
"These aren't genuine elections," he says. "The Ayatollahs control who you can vote for. This could simply help Ahmadinejad cement his power."
Phillips notes that those who were forbidden to run in this election included some people who have held political office in the past. He says the process of disqualifying opposition candidates amounts to a "slow-motion purge" of reformers from the government.
Speaker Position Key
Milani says a key indicator of where power lies will be who becomes the new speaker of parliament.
"One person to watch is Mohammed Baqer Qalibaf, the mayor of Tehran," Milani says. "He could challenge Ahmadinejad for the presidency in 2009."
Qalibaf is 46 years old and, like Ahmadinejad, he served in Iran's Revolutionary Guard during the Iran-Iraq War. From 1999 to 2005, he served as the Islamic Republic's top police official. Qalibaf lost to Ahmadinejad during the presidential election of 2005, but later won the election to succeed Ahmadinejad as mayor of Tehran.
Phillips agrees that Qalibaf is one of the strongest members of what he calls the Iranian government's "internal loyal opposition." He characterizes Qalibaf as a hardliner, but says he lacks Ahmadinejad's strong religious focus.
"I would expect him to make another run against Ahmadinejad next year," Phillips says.
Phillips says that when the election results come in, one of the most interesting counts will be the number of people who actually bother to vote.
"I think participation will be down," he says, "in part because the regime has given people such limited choices."
As to whether the United States should take sides in the election, Milani says, "I believe the U.S. should be quiet. Any attempt by the U.S. to praise one faction or another is just going to hurt them in the eyes of the Iranian public. Let them fight it out, and then we can see what happens."