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Journal of Democracy 11.4 (2000) 108-113

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Is Iran Democratizing?

Observations on Election Day

Haleh Esfandiari

Iran's 2000 parliamentary elections dramatically underscored how far the country has moved in the direction of competitive, if far from fully democratic, politics. Representing a variety of factions and coalitions, more than 5,000 candidates campaigned vigorously for the 290 seats in the Majlis, or parliament. In two rounds of hotly contested voting on February 18 and May 5, a broad reformist coalition supportive of the policies of President Mohammad Khatami won a decisive victory.

It must be kept in mind, however, that in the Islamic Republic there are restrictions on who is eligible to run for office. The Council of Guardians screens candidates for parliamentary elections from a list submitted by the Ministry of Interior. In other words, candidates are vetted first by the Ministry of the Interior and then by the Council. In the runup to the February elections, the Council of Guardians disqualified 569 candidates, many of them prominent figures in Iranian politics, but the exclusions were not across the board and were fewer than in the past. Candidates had the right to appeal, although that did not help them in most cases.

Those candidates who made it through the vetting process competed for votes in multimember districts, ranging in size from a single seat to Tehran's 30 seats (the latter were contested by 871 candidates). Voters [End Page 108] mark their ballots for individual candidates, recording as many choices as their district has seats. Thus, in Tehran, the 30 individuals receiving the highest number of votes were awarded seats in the Majlis. To be elected in the first round, however, candidates also must receive at least 25 percent of the votes in their district. (The old parliament had lowered this minimum requirement from 35 to 25 percent, hoping that this would benefit conservative candidates.) If, for example, two seats in a multi-seat district are forced into runoffs, the four top vote-getters below the 25 percent threshold compete in the second round. This year, 224 seats were decided in the first round, with the remaining 66 requiring runoffs.

Although the electoral system does not officially recognize parties, political groups in Iran today sometimes refer to themselves as parties and often combine with other factions to form large, loosely knit coalitions. In 2000, the elections were dominated by two broad coalitions--the reformists and the conservatives. The reformist alliance, which came to be known as the Second of Khordad coalition (after the date in 1997 on which Mohammed Khatami was elected to the presidency), embraced 18 groups but contained two main tendencies: The forces most strongly committed to President Khatami's reforms were led by the newly founded Islamic Iran Participation Front, headed by the president's brother Reza Khatami. The other, more centrist tendency among the reformists was led by the Executives of Construction, a party of technocrats close to former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. The conservative camp, consisting of a coalition of about 15 parties, was dominated by clerics sympathetic to Iran's Supreme Leader, Mohammed Ali Khamenei.

In preparation for election day, these coalitions and the groups within them tried to agree on informal lists of their preferred candidates. Lists were also put together by associations of journalists, educators, religious groups, and the like. For an entire week preceding the elections, newspapers published the lists put out by the various political groups, with each newspaper featuring lists that reflected its own political affiliation. As the lists did not appear on the official ballot, voters would take them into the polling booths in order to copy them onto the ballot papers. The same candidate often appeared on several lists, and there was considerable overlap among some of them.

In the days prior to the election, the talk of the town in Tehran was the candidacy of former president Rafsanjani, a man of great political weight. He had been warned by his supporters and critics alike not to run, as a poor showing might jeopardize his standing in the community...