How much power does the parliament wield within the Islamic Republic of Iran? Are the MPs true representatives of the people and their wishes, or do they owe their seats to the endorsement of the Supreme Leader and his acolytes? In this series of articles on the relationship between parliament and Ali Khamenei, we explore the answers to these questions.
Without political parties, democracy is dead in the water. This is true in general, and particularly for a parliamentary system. Based on this premise, it is easy to see why the regime of the Islamic Republic and its parliament have failed to function effectively and productively on behalf of Iran.
In a democratic system, parties perform the following functions:
▪ Transforming indifferent and passive citizens into active ones
▪ Mobilizing and organizing public opinion
▪ Nurturing professional political forces
▪ Establishing relations between rulers and the people
▪ Scrutinizing and, where needed, criticizing the government
▪ Conveying people’s demands to the government
▪ Creating political competition by expanding political participation
This is how parties give meaning to a parliamentary system. By mobilizing and organizing public opinion, fielding candidates in elections and organizing and guiding voters, they are potentially able to make the best decisions in the public interest.
The Death of Political Parties in the Islamic Republic
Velayat-e Faqih, or “Guardianship of the Islamic Jurist”, is the founding principle of the Islamic Republic. In this regime the “right to rule” flows from God and, therefore, a one-party system is considered the desirable way to mobilize the people and rule the country. This was true under Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic, and has been true under his successor, Ayatollah Khamenei. In other words, the leader of the Islamic Republic, like the leader of other authoritarian regimes, believes that a single party is best for advancing the goals of the government.
The case of the Islamic Republican Party is a good example of this way of thinking. The party was founded in 1979, just two weeks after the Islamic Revolution, to unify political forces behind the regime but, eventually and inevitably, when it turned out that a single ideological party could not handle the situation in Iran and party turned into a collection of feuding factions, it was dissolved in 1987.
After Khamenei took over the leadership another strategy was adopted: creating coalitions of various groups that were in fact political associations and societies, which shared the same ideology and worldview. In other words, Khamenei permitted the formation of many parties that were different in appearances but whose only function was to mobilize people in support of the Supreme Leader.
Explaining Khamenei’s view of political parties, an article on his website reports: “According to Ayatollah Khamenei, current Western parties are just clubs to gain power. A party is nothing more than a union for gaining power, from recruiting members and their regular party to propaganda sessions to everything else.”
Words from that article clearly illustrate how Khamenei views “Western” political parties and party figures: “Shameless, scheming, rich, Zionist-backing, good-looking and handsome, well-spoken and maybe with an attractive and energetic wife... The result is that such parties drag people or groups of people this way and that way, they constantly spark off quarrels and divisions and, in order not to lose their positions, exaggerate a minor problem or downplay a major issue and spend days and weeks analyzing and discussing it.”
Khamenei himself has said: “I do not see these as parties but as wrong political methods that are common around the world. A desirable party is an organization that that guides the people toward certain ideals. A desirable party is created when a group with political or faith-based ideals form an organization, establish channels of communications between themselves and the people and bring them to their own side.”
Obviously what Khamenei means by “party” are groups loyal to the Guardianship of the Islamic Jurist who promote the ideology of the ruling establishment and mobilize people to support what the regime wants. It was this way of thinking that led to the elimination of political groups that did not share the ideology of the rulers in every aspect. No candidate can run in any election unless he or she is approved by the Guardian Council, the country’s most powerful body, half of whose members are appointed by the Supreme Leader and half of whom are nominated by the judiciary and approved by parliament. As a result, only a small circle of those who are loyal to the regime have the right to run for election.
The Party System and the Right to Vote
In democracies the “right to vote” is what supports the parties. In other words, it is the candidate’s right to vote that has made the party system possible and has allowed it to expand. A major raison d’être for parties is that they encourage people to vote by mobilizing in support of their candidates, and these parties, of course, do not belong to the same ideological camp.
In the Islamic Republic, however, the right to get elected is enjoyed by a small, closed group and the parties all serve a central goal: organizing people to vote for those that the regime favors. Therefore, creating political competition through increasing political participation is irrelevant to Velayat-e Faqih because in this system elections do not mean competition. In this system, people can only vote for individuals approved by the government and competition, if it exists at all, is only among those who are faithful to the regime of the Islamic Republic and its policies.
The propaganda machine of the Islamic Republic has consistently proclaimed that “people do not trust parties and partisan activities”, “people are not willing to accept a party system” and “parties cannot attract public support”. Such assertions, of course, are bogus. National parties are absent in the Islamic Republic for two major reasons. The first is that elections as competitions do not exist and, as a result, the right to vote has no real meaning. The second is that there is no freedom of speech and no freedom of engagement with political activities, which are essential for the emergence of parties.
Under these conditions, the major players in Iranian politics are the existing autocratic rulers who believe in a single ideological party, even though this party might function in the guise of different groups and names.
Parliament in the Absence of Political Parties
The first parliament of the Islamic Republic, elected in 1980 after the revolution, and the Sixth parliament, elected in 2000, in which the reformists held a majority, were exceptions to the rule. And yet, throughout its history, the Iranian parliament has failed to play the role it should in a democracy. Representatives to the parliament do not emerge from competition among parties but from among candidates most loyal to the Guardianship of the Islamic Jurist who are approved by the Guardian Council.
Short-lived coalitions of convenience instead of true political parties has led to more or less monolithic parliaments, where neither is anybody held accountable for its performance nor do its members care about people’s demands. And there can be no doubt that the Supreme Leader has played the major role in bringing about this situation. On the one hand, institutions under his command such as security agencies and the judiciary have systematically suppressed parties and political activists and, on the other, every effort has been made to support coalitions that totally support Ayatollah Khamenei. Such coalitions do not happen by chance but are tactics to disenfranchise the parliament and it is for that reason that Khamenei has consistently endorsed them.
This is what Khamenei has to say about “voting correctly”: “We might not know every candidate individually. When they bring me the lists so I can vote, I find out that I do not know some of the people on the lists but I look to find out who has presented the list. If they are religious and revolutionary people I trust them and vote for them but if I see that the people who have put together this list are those who do not care much about the issues of the revolution, of religion, of the country’s sovereignty and, in their hearts, they follow what the United States or others say, then I do not trust them.”
A democracy is an environment in which parliament is powerful and effective, in which competitive elections are held, in which parties exist on a national level and their freedom of expression and freedom to engage in political activities is officially recognized. The Islamic Republic is not like that. What exists in this system is that all groups and coalitions must have the same ideology and this ideology must agree with Supreme Leader’s ideas and ideals. To hope that the parliament in such a system can be effective is nothing but a fool’s dream.