IRAN:Candidate Purge Smacks of a "Vendetta", Critics Say
(Below is my piece that published in IPS News Agency)
By Omid Memarian*
BERKELEY, California, Feb 12 (IPS) - The mass disqualification of reformist parliamentary candidates by Iran's Guardian Council, which oversees the electoral rolls, has diminished the possibility of fair elections on Mar. 14, observers say.
The Guardian Council is comprised of influential clerics and lawmakers. Half of its members are appointed by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the other half by the Parliament, both of which are conservative.
Last week, authorities confirmed that more than 2,400 candidates would not be allowed to run for the Parliament's 290 seats. Three former ministers, a dozen provincial governors, prominent reformists, and MPs who worked under the reformist president Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005) are among the disqualified candidates. Surprisingly, 20 sitting MPs have been barred from running in the parliamentary elections.
Also, for the first time since the 1979 Revolution, a member of Ayatollah Khomeini's family is among the disqualified nominees. Ali Eshraghi, a grandson of Khomeini, founder of the Islamic Republic, was rejected because of "lack of loyalty to Islam and the constitution".
"Among political activists and candidates, there are several types of opinions and approaches to [the upcoming] elections," said Zahra Eshraghi, Ali Eshraghi's sister and also a sister-in-law to Khatami. "Some of them say that they will not run any candidates -- though they are not condoning a boycott, because boycotting the elections may facilitate the election of individuals who might make things even worse."
"Another group states that they will participate, offering a list of candidates, however, advising people to choose whomever they wish," Eshraghi told IPS, "Yet another group says that they would settle for the bare minimum, meaning that even if one, two, or three of their candidates are elected to Parliament, it is better than sitting on the sidelines and doing nothing."
The unprecedented disqualifications, whose scale is greater than it was in elections four years ago, will almost certainly retain the conservatives' absolute majority in the next parliament.
Last week, Khatami called the mass disqualifications of reformist candidates a "disaster" and warned against "pre-determining people's votes".
"I believe that the government never intended to let us participate in the Parliamentary elections," Seyyed Mohammad Ali Abtahi, who served as Khatami's vice president from 2001 to 2004, told IPS in a phone interview. "By laying off managers from all levels in the government during the past two years, it seemed like the administration was attempting to institute a system in which no one would be left to criticise it. It was natural for them to look at elections with the same mindset."
He said that while the sheer number of disqualifications surprised even many in the conservative camp, the general strategy of disqualifications had been "talked about openly and repeatedly by officials in the administration ever since the new group took office."
On Sunday, Ahmad Tavakkoli, a conservative who represents the capital Tehran in Parliament, wrote a letter to the Guardian Council urging it to reexamine the petitions of the rejected candidates. He criticised some Council members for their lack of experience and cited difficulties related to registration of candidates on the Internet.
"Pre-determining people's votes" has apparently been orchestrated by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's hardliner government, which has been among the least tolerant toward its critics since the Islamic Revolution. "Military commanders and those affiliated with the radical, hardliner movement now serve as our governors and supervisors," Abtahi said.
While many believe that the disqualifications could taint the legitimacy of the elections, Abtahi believes that Ahmadinejad and his advisors are not afraid to bear the cost. "There was a time when the government shied away from doing things like that, but the current administration actually prefers to take responsibility for disqualifying reformist candidates," he said.
The reformist candidates who have been qualified by the Guardian Council are mostly relatively unknown, although they could form a considerable minority in Parliament.
While many experts, including a faction of conservative camp, believe that the disqualifications will damage the government's credibility, Eshraghi said that the government appears ready to accept the consequences. "In fact, this is a massive political elimination, a vendetta, done by the government," she added.
Ali Mazrooie, a former member of parliament who has been disqualified by the Ministry of Interior, told IPS that it was unprecedented for the Ministry of Interior's oversight committee to disqualify candidates for "lack of belief and conviction in Islam and the Islamic Republic of Iran" and "lack of belief in Constitution and absolute supreme leadership," some of the reasons that have been given to exclude candidates.
"That was a job formerly reserved for the Guardian Council," Mazrooie said.
"The government's view is that it is doing a very good job, and that this is precisely what it was elected to do," Zahra Eshraghi, the granddaughter of Ayatollah Khomeini, told IPS. "They didn't risk leaving the disqualifications [only] to the Guardian Council, where some candidates might dodge the disqualifications, making it to the parliament."
Guardian Council has until Feb. 22 to study the rejected candidates' petitions.
(Read the the piece on IPS News Agency.)