Iran election laws under debate

December 14, 2012

Proposed changes in Iran’s election laws are proving contentious, sparking a debate over who should decide which candidates can compete in June’s contest to succeed President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

The possible reforms and the controversy around them mark another round in the struggle between Ahmadinejad and his more conservative rivals, who hope to stymie any chance that an ally of the administration might continue its agenda, including the populist economic policies that many here believe have contributed to Iran’s recent fiscal woes.

Although presidential power is limited in Iran and final decisions remain in the hands of the country’s supreme leader, the president has traditionally served as the country’s international face, meaning that Ahmadinejad’s successor could play a pivotal role in a nuclear standoff with the West.

The aim of the changes, proposed by nearly one-third of Iran’s members of parliament, is twofold: to give parliament increased power in Iran’s cumbersome presidential vetting process while reducing the role of the executive branch in elections.

In addition to the proposed changes, the bill’s introductory note also grants a rare acknowledgment that international criticism of Iran’s domestic policies carries weight in the Islamic republic.

Citing deficiencies in the candidacy registration process, the bill states that the current process “has been criticized by the public and specialists inside the country and is a subject that our foreign enemies make fun of us over. . . . After 27 years, we need to amend the present law.”

In Iran’s multilayered ruling system, a bill becomes law only after the 12-member Guardian Council has approved it, which is viewed as likely in this case. This powerful body, which is appointed by Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, also has final say on confirming candidates and is responsible for certifying election results.

One of the bill’s supporters, the leading conservative figure and parliament speaker Ali Larijani, is expected to run as a candidate in the June 14 election. On Tuesday, Larijani — who is closely aligned with Khamenei — said that the amendments would be implemented in time for the late-spring vote.

Ahmadinejad cannot run for a third consecutive term, but it is widely believed that he wants one of his ministers — preferably his controversial former chief of staff, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei — to succeed him. Mashaei, who has championed ideas viewed here as nationalist rather than Islamic, is considered by many clerics and conservatives to be a threat to the system they built. Ahmadinejad has defied Khamenei’s recommendation to remove him from his cabinet.

The proposed law calls for the appointment of an election advisory board composed of members of parliament, the minister of intelligence and the general prosecutor, which would reduce the executive branch’s role in administering and monitoring the polls.

Those in favor of the bill say the executive branch has too much sway under the current system because the Interior Ministry oversees elections, and its representatives are appointed by the president.

“This increases the possibility of fraud. If there is an executive board over the Ministry of the Interior, it will create more trust in people and less possibility of any charge against the authorities,” said the influential conservative parliamentarian Ali Motahari, a vocal critic of the president and Larijani’s brother-in-law.

Indirectly referring to Ahmadinejad’s disputed 2009 reelection, Motahari added, “It is not correct that the government be the organizer of elections, especially when one of the candidates is the president himself.”

Some critics say that the proposed amendments would give the parliament more power, to the detriment of the public. Others call the bill unnecessary, even frivolous, at a time when Iran faces a host of challenges, such as economic isolation from international sanctions and multiple regional security issues.

“So far, four sessions of parliament have been spent on this bill, and it might require another 15 sessions, and we still haven’t discussed the budget plan for next year,” lawmaker Hoseeinali Haji Deligani told reporters this week. “So it is not expedient to spend parliament’s time on this issue.”

Among other changes still under consideration are age limits that would require candidates to be between 45 and 75 years old and hold a master’s degree or its equivalent in theocratic training, as well as a vague requirement that candidates be recognized political figures within the Islamic republic.

These adjustments are seen by many here as politically motivated and intended to reduce the number of candidates that hard-liners deem threatening to the nation’s core ideals and goals, charges often leveled at those in Ahmadinejad’s camp.

Jason Rezaian has been The Post’s correspondent in Tehran since 2012. He was previously a freelance writer based in Tehran.
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