Iran's Presidential Election: The Failure of Managed Functionalism

By Tezcur, Gunes Murat | Insight Turkey, July 2009 | Go to article overview

Iran's Presidential Election: The Failure of Managed Functionalism


Tezcur, Gunes Murat, Insight Turkey


Elections have served to perpetuate the factional pluralism inherent in the Islamic Republic since its inception. While elections are not agents of democratization or de-democratization by themselves in the Islamic Republic, they do significantly affect the balance of power among competing factions operating within the system. Iran's elections provide an institutional mechanism that facilitates the rise and demise of factions and the formation and dissolution of strategic alliances; they manage factional conflict, and introduce an element of political uncertainty that is absent in many Middle Eastern states. Hence, electoral competition in Iran has traditionally prevented permanent elite defections that could destabilize the regime by promising that today's losers could be tomorrow's winners. At the same time, the winners in Iran's popularly elected institutions remain subordinated to figures in the unelected institutions.

Elections do not encourage the establishment of parties with mass mobilizing capacity; thus factions lack strong vertical links with the population. The faqih, the most powerful position in the regime, has control over the Guardians Council (Shura-ye Negahban, or GC, a body of twelve jurists who have collective veto power over parliamentary legislation and presidential decrees), the Pasdaran (Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps), the judiciary, and a variety of other institutions. (1)

In this political context, the events during and after the 2009 elections have been unique and are poised to have lasting implications. For the first time since the 1979 Revolution, mass grievances were translated into massive public demonstrations that questioned the legitimacy of the key institutions of the Iranian regime. While the regime appears to have contained these demonstrations, the 2009 uprising has shown the limits of elections in managing factional conflict, which spread out to include Iran's people.

The Campaign

President Mahmood Ahmedinejad was the frontrunner in the 2009 elections. Ex-president Mohammad Khatami had initially announced his candidacy but later withdrew in favor of Mir Hossein Mousavi, who had served as Prime Minister from 1981 to 1989. During his tenure, Mousavi had many differences with Ali Khamanei, the current faqih, who was then president of Iran. After 1989 Mousavi avoided politics and refused to run for office in the 1997 and 2005 presidential elections. Mousavi decided to reenter active politics in 2009 primarily because of his discontent with the Ahmedinejad government. He argued that Ahmedinejad had abandoned the principles of the Islamic Revolution and was governing with dictatorial methods. Mousavi quickly mobilized the support of Khatami and major reformist organizations including the Islamic Iran Participation Front (Jebhe-ye Mosharekat-e Iran-e Eslami, IIPF), and emerged as serious contender to challenge Ahmedinejad. After the official campaigning period started on May 22, Mousavi galvanized a substantial segment of the Iranian population who felt excluded and marginalized under Ahmedinejad's presidency. Departing from their tactics in the 2005 presidential elections, the reformist groups did not call for a boycott, and energetically participated in the campaign. In addition to Ahmedinejad and Mousavi, ex-Speaker of the Parliament Mehdi Karroubi and ex-Commander of the Pasdaran Mohsen Rezai ran in the elections after the GC approved their candidacy.

Unlike the previous elections, campaigning was intense in 2009 and drew enormous voter interest. The campaigning was mostly peaceful, with the exception of a May 28 bomb attack that killed several dozens in a Shiite mosque in Zahedan, the capital of the Sistan and Baluchestan province bordering Afghanistan and Pakistan. Ahmedinejad and Mousavi rallies attracted huge crowds. In the evenings, thousands of Ahmedinejad and Mousavi supporters taunted each other in many cities. Cultural and social divisions were visible in these instances.

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