Theocracy versus Democracy: Iran Considers Political Parties

By Fairbanks, Stephen C. | The Middle East Journal, Winter 1998 | Go to article overview

Theocracy versus Democracy: Iran Considers Political Parties


Fairbanks, Stephen C., The Middle East Journal


Muhammad Khatami's upset victory in the 1997 presidential election in Iran was due to an unprecedented degree of popular support from Iranians, including many youths and women, who showed a clear desire for change. Many hoped that the system would open politically, and that the ban on meaningful party activity for the past 16 years would be lifted. For the regime, however, the establishment of parties by civil groups is a direct threat to clerical control, as it is at odds with the theory of the divine legitimacy of the regime. The alternative, however-official government parties-would amount to little more than the party system under Muhammad Reza Shah Pahlavi.

The May 1997 presidential election in Iran showed pluralism and democracy developing in that country to an extent that many Westerners found surprising. There were limits, to be sure: the Council of Guardians, a group of senior Islamic jurists and other legal experts, had to vet the candidates. They approved only four out of nearly 240, and there was no room at all for secularist candidates. But beyond that, the regime did not control the outcome: the candidate of its dominant, conservative faction, Majlis (parliament) Speaker `Ali Akbar Nateq-Nuri, suffered a humiliating defeat. The election result was a clear message from the people, who peacefully but effectively expressed their discontent over their government's shortcomings.

THE DEMANDS OF AN EXPANDING ELECTORATE

The enthusiastic participation of a new generation of voters in 1997 increased the pressures for political pluralism. There is no statistical breakdown of the voters, but Iran's youth, many previously either too young to vote or alienated from the political system, reportedly made up a large part of the 20 million who gave Khatami his upset victory. They were joined by large numbers of women. Both groups perceived him to be an agent for change. Khatami's backers used opinion polls-in itself a good example of Iran's democratic trend-to gauge the concerns and voting strength of the populace.1 One such poll, published in a newspaper sympathetic to Khatami, showed that voters in Isfahan were concerned more about the economy than hard-line, anti-Western values. Those polled said the government's priorities should be to ensure social justice, tackle high inflation and joblessness, and address the problems of Iran's youths. Only 15 percent of those polled felt that it was important for Iran's leaders to confront the West's "cultural onslaught" and resist accommodation with the United States.2

Young Iranian voters sensed the possibility of having a voice in their political destiny. They could now consider the system "as their own,"3 observed Fa'ezeh Hashemi, daughter of outgoing president `Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani. Khatami frequently spoke at universities, promising a "better tomorrow" for the frustrated, jobless youth. He maintained that a "fresh approach to the youth issues [was one of the] main duties of the Islamic state"4-otherwise, the youth would cause serious problems for society in the future. Khatami distanced himself from the faltering and unpopular campaign to 'Islamize' the universities, a goal of the conservative faction of his chief election rival, Nateq-Nuri.

Khatami also sought the increasingly important women's vote. During the electoral campaign, he proclaimed that women should be active in all social, political and economic activities, and said he would welcome qualified women in his cabinet if he should win the presidency.5 "Efforts should be made to do away with male supremacy,"6 he told women, contrasting himself to those who did "not approve of this approach."7 Nateq-Nuri, on the other hand, was unable to shake his reputation as an advocate of stricter social and employment restrictions on women. Vicious rumors even compared him to Afghanistan's Taliban in regard to his attitude toward women. Although Iran's "Leader of the Revolution," Ayatollah `Ali Khamene'i, favored Nateq-Nuri, he sensed that Iranian women were unhappy with the status quo Nateq-Nuri represented. …

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