July 27, 2016

Is this proposal the future of Iranian elections?

Key takeaway: Iran is likely to revise its electoral system in the near future. A proposal by Guardian Council spokesman Abbasali Kadkhodaei would reduce the council’s overt involvement in the candidate vetting process but still maintain its ability to disproportionately disqualify reformist candidates. Kadkhodaei advocates strengthening Iran’s weak party system by registering a handful of political parties. The parties would conduct most of the candidate vetting themselves. It could therefore redirect public resentment of the mass disqualifications away from the regime. His plan would help the regime adapt to new challenges in the political system while maintaining both its legitimacy and control over elections.

Guardian Council spokesman Abbasali Kadkhodaei proposed electoral reform during an interview on July 16. He was not speaking on behalf of the entire council, and the council does not control the electoral process itself. But Kadkhodaei’s position as spokesman of the elite council, which must vet electoral candidates and approve all parliamentary legislation, nonetheless means that his proposal should be taken seriously. No other council member has publicly criticized it, moreover, suggesting that it may have broader support.

Skyrocketing rates of popular participation have prompted a great deal of criticism of the electoral process and calls for electoral reform. An unprecedented number of Iranians – over 12,000 – registered as candidates to run for seats in the 290-member Parliament in the 2016 election. The Guardian Council has disproportionately disqualified reformists during the past several election cycles, but the high number of registered candidates made their mass disqualification this cycle even more controversial.  The number of candidates strained the Guardian Council’s vetting process, which is conducted in short intervals unsuited for large pools of candidates. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei himself has acknowledged that the Guardian Council faced a “legal difficulty” because of the need to review so many candidates. A former council spokesman similarly criticized the Guardian Council’s current vetting process as neither “efficient nor effective.”

Kadkhodaei proposes strengthening Iran’s weak party system in order to alleviate the impact of increasing popular participation. The current party system does not serve the regime well in this regard.  The large but ever-changing number of political parties render them close to useless as a way to manage candidates, and the parties currently play no role in the vetting process. Kadkhodaei thus recommends reducing the Guardian Council’s burden by formally recognizing 10 political parties. These parties would vet their own candidates and nominate a small number of finalists to the Guardian Council. The council would presumably lead another review of the nominees’ qualifications following the party-led vetting, thereby ensuring their control over the candidate pool.

Kadkhodaei’s proposal has the potential to concentrate power in the hands of a few party leaders, whom the Guardian Council could presumably hold accountable for the finalists they present to the council. The Guardian Council may vet the party leaders to maintain indirect control over the candidate pools, although Kadkhodaei did not specify if that would be the case.

A stronger party system responsible for vetting most candidates would do more than reduce the Guardian Council’s burden. It could protect the regime by deflecting popular dissatisfaction onto the parties themselves, since they would do the overwhelming majority of the work to winnow the vast field of potential candidates down to a small group acceptable to the council. Kadkhodaei’s proposal would still produce a candidate pool heavily vetted according to the Guardian Council’s guidelines, meaning that it would not necessarily improve reformists’ disadvantage in the political system. His proposed reform thus provides the regime with an opportunity to adapt and maintain its legitimacy, all while continuing to manage elections closely.

Excerpts from his interview are translated below.

Kadkhodaei: “The electoral system in Iran is very old and appropriate for the 1980s”

…He referred to a recent interview in which he gave the Guardian Council a rating of 17 out of 20. He stated, “In that interview, they really emphasized that I said I certainly would not have given a perfect score of 20. I don’t give anyone a perfect score when I teach at university. For example, the Guardian Council has not acted well in some notices [to the public].”

…He stated that our electoral system is very old and appropriate for the 1980s and that there must be fundamental change in this area. He said, “Much of the criticism toward the Guardian Council is due to objections to electoral laws.”

This Guardian Council lawyer responded to a question of why he has not taken steps to reform the election law.[1] He explained, “The Guardian Council is not a legislator. The administration and the Parliament must change laws by proposing plans or bills. Regarding consultations, I must say that I have given consultations to influential individuals and officials in the past administration and Parliament, but consultations are never announced to the public. The previous administration prepared a resolution in this area, but it failed for some reason. The administration had its own specific reasons. They stopped this work. Naturally the Guardian Council could not take action. Right now members of the Guardian Council are very active and represented in specialized commissions and public sessions [of Parliament].”

He stated that the parliamentary election law has problems and said, “I have advised time and time again for the reform of electoral law. I hope that the new Parliament will help.”

…Kadkhodaei responded to a question on the nonexistence of political parties in the country. He stated, “The party system can be a great help in the review of candidates’ qualifications at every stage of the elections. It is better for our country when we have parties that have a clear and registered political identity and are always active in political activities. Likewise, instead of having 12,000 candidates for Parliament, we can organize a system in which we have 10 parties. If the parties can commit to introducing candidates who are within the Islamic Republic of Iran’s framework and comply with the law, then the Guardian Council’s burden would be lighter.” He emphasized, “If we have strong parties in the country, then we will not have 12,000 candidates for Parliament and 1,000 for the presidency.”

This Guardian Council lawyer continued to answer a question regarding how the Guardian Council reviews qualifications. He stated, “When the law has clear procedures for qualifications review, we must act within that framework. We have no other choice. It would be against the rules for us to disobey this law. It is inevitable for us to act this way due to legal conditions and restrictions. Of course, if the electoral law is reformed, we can act better.”

…This Guardian Council lawyer responded to a question based on the recent elections to the Assembly of Experts and how someone could be approved [to run in the election] without taking the [theological qualifications] examination while someone else could be disqualified for not participating in the examination. He said, “The Assembly of Experts itself creates the Assembly’s election law. In the law, the responsibility for reviewing Assembly candidates’ qualifications is given to the Guardian Council’s jurists. This assessment [of a candidate’s qualifications] can be personal, or it can be through the candidate’s writings. The best way is through participation in the test. Any of the three ways are used by the Guardian Council, but it uses the written test more.”

Kadkhodaei responded to a question on how some consider the Guardian Council to be acting in a factional way during the qualifications review. He said, “I recognize that this view exists, but the Guardian Council’s approach proves it wrong. The Guardian Council approved representatives in both the [conservative-dominated] ninth and [split] tenth parliaments. Did the Guardian Council act factionally in the presidential elections? If only one faction is confirmed in elections, why do the results in Parliament and the presidency always differ?”

[1] The twelve-member Guardian Council is comprised of six religious jurists appointed directly by the Supreme Leader and six lawyers elected by Parliament. Parliament chooses these six lawyers from among a pool of candidates selected by the Judiciary head, whom Khamenei also appoints.