The Iranian Election 'Reforms' That Aren't

Why new efforts to change the Islamic Republic's electoral system could end up just favoring establishment candidates.

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Name lists of parliamentary election candidates are seen at a polling station in central Tehran on March 2, 2012. (Reuters)

There are months to go before Iranians choose a new president, but the Islamic regime already appears to be preparing the ground for a preferred candidate. A controversial election-reform bill working its way through parliament contains measures that could prevent undesirables from running while granting the clerical establishment greater control over the election's outcome in June 2013. The bill, which passed in its first reading on December 2, would tighten an already strict vetting process for potential candidates by adding prerequisites for age, experience, and loyalty to the establishment.

Ironically, the proposed legislation has been criticized as unconstitutional by sitting President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, whose reelection in 2009 led to mass street protests amid claims that the result was rigged. Others have suggested that the measures are intended to favor candidates close to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. They could also prevent 78-year-old former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani -- who has angered regime loyalists over his support for the opposition movement -- from returning to office.

Under the bill, anyone running for president would have to be 45 to 75 years of age. They would have to receive the approval of 25 members of the Assembly of Experts -- a body of Islamic scholars that is tasked with electing the country's supreme leader. And they would need written approval from 100 members of the 290-member parliament. Candidates would also be required to hold either a master's degree or the equivalent from a seminary of a traditional Islamic institution of higher education. Moreover, they must have eight years' experience in government posts.

'Religious and Political Personalities'

Under the current system, potential candidates must be 18 or older and are constitutionally required to be among the country's "religious and political personalities," hold Iranian citizenship, and believe in the principles of the Islamic republic.

If they clear those requirements, the names of prospective candidates are passed on to the powerful Guardians Council, which has the final say on who runs in the election. It has a history of disqualifying individuals on vague criteria. Adding the additional condition that prospective candidates receive approval from religious and political figures, critics say, would make it impossible for independents to run. Calls were made for electoral reforms after the 2009 election, when Ahmadinejad -- who at the time was seen as the candidate closest to Supreme Leader Khamenei -- won ahead of strong opposition candidates.

Germany-based political analyst Hassan Shariatmadari tells RFE/RL's Radio Farda that, rather than reforming the election process, the new bill would actually make it easier for candidates backed by the supreme leader to win. "The tactical aim of this bill is to eliminate the candidates who could stand against the one supported by Khamenei," Shariatmadari says. "The intervention in the election process goes further than that because the bill aims at increased control over the implementation of the election because the engineering of the election and fraud" can be done openly.

Mehrzad Boroujerdi, a professor of political science at Syracuse University, suggests that "with this bill, [Iran] is moving toward the appointment of the [future] president rather than electing him." He also notes the changes the reform would make to the role of the Interior Ministry, which is currently tasked with overseeing elections.

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