Sunday, 6 May 2012

In Iran, deeper splits emerge

Opponents of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won 20 seats in Iran's May 4 parliamentary runoff election, compared to eight seats won by the president's supporters, AP reported based on partial election results announced by state media May 5. Independents won 11 of the 65 available seats.

Mr Ahmadinejad's supporters are now vastly outnumbered in the legislature by conservatives, a bloc that once backed the president but that turned against him after he challenged the authority of top Iranian clerics.

Iran’s runoff elections May 4 resulted in a strong defeat for the conservative populist party of President Ahmadinejad. The incumbent president won only 13 seats putting his party on the back foot politically for the last two years. He has become a threat for the clerical leadership as has tried to create a parliament which will take support away from the clerical elite.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
The two camps can be effectively divided by the distinction of those who believe Ayatollah Khamenei, who is considered the ‘supreme leader’ of the Iranian nation, has “final say”, and those who do not. Mr Ahmadinejad is the leader of the dissenting camp, using his power to push back against the clerical elite.

In the March 2 elections, neither the populist nor the pro-clerical elite parties were able to gain clear majority. Because Mr Ahmadinejad held his position in the interim, his party took some legitimacy. The struggle for influence between the two parties has swung back and forward over this last presidential term.

Ayatollah Khamenei and his clerical support base are looking for a more religiously dominated parliament while Mr Ahmadinejad has tried to create an anti-theocratic group to give him more leverage over the decision making processes and subvert the hegemony of the clerics. The battle is heating up because Mr Khamenei’s health is rumoured to be declining as the 72-year-old comes to the natural end of his tenure.

The political infighting has been more public this year, pointing to a more complex situation in Iran. 19 seats in the recent runoff election went to candidates without connections to either of the two embattled parties. This independent voice will give Mr Ahmadinejad an opportunity to create allies with unconventional groups, but not the strategic weight to counter the clerical regime.

He had been in control of the state-owned energy assets up until the beginning of the year. This gave him strong influence over where those funds travelled and who would get financial support. The Iranian parliament moved to deny the president his controlling oversight of those assets in order to gain advantage over him before the elections really took off.

Mr Ahmadinejad’s colleagues and political placements weren’t immune either. Judicial proceedings over corruption and other allegations were begun on a handful of tactically significant appointees in his government to tie them up and effectively remove them from the race for power. Ayatollah Khamenei has been playing chess with his own appointees placing them in key parliamentary positions to ensure that when Mr Ahmadinejad steps down in 2014 there will be people more conducive to the clerical regime who can take over.

Mr Ahmadinejad began to split from the supreme leader when the latter instructed him to remove a close associate from his cabinet shortly after the 2009 elections. And although he acquiesced with the request, Mr Ahmadinejad simply moved his colleague parallel into another senior position. Other dismissals have occurred frequently with clear political tactics.

On another occasion, Mr Ahmadinejad countermanded the Ayatollah by removing  former Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki on December 13, 2010, while the minister was overseas on assignment, eventually forcing the resignation of intelligence chief Heidar Moslehi on April 18, 2011, against the direct wishes of the supreme leader.
Ayatollah Khamenei

The growing conflict between the two parties will not be an easy fix. The tension lies deep in the paradox of having an independent, sovereign nation-state and a clerical theocracy run by a supreme leader who can never be superseded by congressional elections.

So while the current president is the face of the party at the moment, he can rule for a maximum of three terms - two of them consecutive. The party itself can nominate a new candidate to lead once Mr Ahmadinejad has gone.

His leadership does not overrule his party rather, just like in other political systems, he is a mouthpiece for the strategic movements of the party. The Ayatollah on the other hand is not bound by such constraints. And clearing Mr Ahmadinejad out of the way for the next election will improve his chances of having a more supportive theocratic representative in power.

However, there are few things which may help Mr Ahmadinejad in his conflict with the clerical elite. Ayatollah Khamenei does not have the theological credentials that his predecessor Khomeini did. In fact, it is obvious that he may not even have the full support of the other influential theologians.

This does not mean that Mr Khamenei lacks full authority; it only indicates a potential weakness that Mr Ahmadinejad could exploit. After all, Mr Ahmadinejad has introduced social packages helping the rural and poor sectors of society, a plan which came to fruition during the ‘Green Revolution’ the educated youth in the large city-centres protested and not the rural peoples that make up the bulk of the Iranian populace.

Final results in Iran's May 4 parliamentary runoff election showed conservative opponents of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad consolidating their hold, AP reported May 5, citing state media. Opponents of the president already controlled a majority of the 290-member legislature after the first round of voting in March.

In the May 4 runoff vote, conservatives won 41 of the 65 available seats, compared to just 13 seats for Mr Ahmadinejad supporters and 11 seats for independents. Because he must constitutionally step down in 2014, the next elections will give the clerical elite a greater chance to wrest more control back from the populist elements ahead. This weekend’s elections however, may point to how the public are reacting to Mr Ahmadinejad’s legacy already.

No comments: