Iran’s hardline Parliament could approve by this fall a controversial bill designed to amend the country’s election laws. But opponents of the bill say that it is discriminatory and limits popular participation in future elections.
If approved, the bill demands candidates running for office in Iran hold at least a master’s degree, instead of just being able to read and write which is the only qualification required to date. Candidates are expected to have managerial experience and a track record of party activities. Besides having extensive work experience gained after Iran’s revolution in 1979, they have to be of Iranian origin and between 40 years old and 70 years old. The bill will demand that candidates have a high social status and have previously served in a senior political/administrative post.
Candidates will also be required to submit a plan of action about their policies to the hardline Guardian Council and reveal names and qualifications of their future advisors and/or ministers. Hardliners say this will reduce the state’s cost of having to register unqualified candidates. Nearly 3,000 unqualified candidates, for example, registered to run in one of Iran’s previous presidential races.
But opponents of the bill are concerned that it will give discretionary powers to the Guardian Council, the body responsible for approving whether candidates are suitable or not to run in elections. The Jomhuri Eslami newspaper says the new bill will take the vote from the people and hand it over to the Guardian Council. The newspaper Arman Melli argues that the bill will give stronger political factions exclusive control over power, whereas the right to run for office constitutionally belongs to all the people of Iran.
These newspapers fear that the bill granting the Guardian Council more powers will automatically reduce the importance for people to vote, given the Council’s history of over-exerting its will on the election process.
The draft bill in fact goes against Article 99 of Iran’s Constitution which restricts the role of the Guardian Council. It is against Iranian law for the Guardian Council to involve itself in making laws for elections via extended powers granted by the new bill. The government is responsible for making laws/rules concerning elections and to monitor them, and it is possible that Iran’s Interior Ministry was pressured by powerful groups in Iran known as the so-called shadow government to comply with the bill. The Interior Ministry, the body responsible for holding elections, says that it was not consulted by Iran’s lawmakers who drafted the bill, and that it is Parliament’s responsibility to finalize the new election law.
What is known is that a long list of 25 requirements for candidacy outlined in the new bill will enable the Guardian Council to block many future populist candidates. A former member of Parliament Ali Motahari says the bill will reduce popular participation if the Guardian Council gains too much power over elections and enables stronger factions to eliminate weaker rival political factions. The former lawmaker does not say exactly how this might happen. But it is fair to say that the new bill could arbitrarily grant more power to Iran’s powerful hardline factions.
Motahari is specifically concerned that the bill could encourage powerful members of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) to seek office and create an Iranian state that leans toward being led by a military government. The IRGC is generally unhappy with Iran’s rapid political and economic decline, and seeing it as a security threat might seek to run for more elected positions to fix some of the problems the country faces, albeit with a heavy hand and with backing from fellow hardliners. To avoid this scenario, Motahari insists that military officials should at the very least resign from their posts before seeking office.
Jomhuri Eslami argues that the new election bill would designate candidates as “religious luminaries” or “political luminaries.” Motahari is concerned that members of the army and IRGC are seen in Iran as “political luminaries,” which could easily qualify them to run for elected office. Mohsen Rafigdoost, a prominent IRGC commander, recently declared that Iran’s next president should be from the ranks of the IRGC if it helps fix the country’s problems.
The new bill also fails to define the role of women in future Iranian presidential elections. To date, the Guardian Council has never allowed a woman to run for the presidency, by arguing that the term “luminaries” or “rojal” in Persian is not gender neutral as it applies only to the male gender and automatically disqualifies women from contesting the presidential race.
The latest proposed amendments shut the door on previous attempts by President Hassan Rouhani to reform Iran’s elections laws, particularly the presidential elections. As early as February, Rouhani called for a national referendum to limit the role of the Guardian Council in elections. But his call was thwarted by the hardliners.
Naturally, reformers fear that hardliners might try to push their candidates out of future presidential races by allowing the bill to give the Guardian Council greater say on the issue of presidential elections. Not surprisingly, Iran’s Parliament is simultaneously leading discussions to amend the presidential election laws to give the Guardian Council more clarity on how to vet future candidates for the post and remove existing ambiguities on the subject as found in Article 115 of the Constitution. The article does not place any factional qualifiers for running for the presidential office, which to date enables “reformists” in Iran to seek office. The hardliners seem to want more qualifiers inserted in the article.
These electoral changes could signal the rise to power of the IRGC in Iran, which is already an immensely powerful institution but under Iran’s current laws is required to stay out of politics. Many members of Iran’s Parliament who support the draft bill are former members of the IRGC. It should come as no surprise that as Iran’s Parliament deliberates the draft bill for approval, it invited the head of the IRGC Hossein Salami to address the body this past week. In his speech, he celebrated the hardline leadership of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The hardline Parliament has also recently approved Iran’s new Minister of Industry, Mines and Trade Alireza Razm Hosseini, who has served in the IRGC.
The new bill will seal the political rise to power of the IRGC by enabling its members to seek more elected offices in Iran. More importantly, it will pave the way for Iran’s armed and notorious paramilitary bodies to emerge as the country’s new political leaders and consolidate the power of groups that increasingly support a militarized state.