How people elect parliaments
Iran’s more than 50 million voters will go to the polls Friday week (26 February) to elect two assemblies.
As they do every four years, they will elect their national parliament, the Majlese Ŝourāye Melli (Islamic Consultative Assembly).
Since the Islamic revolution in 1979, Iranian politics has developed into something resembling a two-party system. The dominant force is the Principlists, a governing party focused on sustaining the order established by the revolution, and the leadership structure that continues from it, as well as a conservative approach to Islamic faith.
Opposing them are the ‘reformists’, a looser arrangement of leaders and parties that seeks to modernize Iranian society and politics.
Reformists have held the Iranian presidency in the past, and performed well in the period from around 2000 to around 2005, but at present the Principlists have the upper hand. The Principlists scored 68% of the vote in the 2008 Majlese elections, followed by 63% in 2012.
There is speculation that the reformists may do better in 2016.
Iran is progressively healing its diplomatic relationships with the international community (highlighted by the nuclear energy and weapons agreement of the past few months) and opening itself to world commerce and travel.
In Iran’s highly complex political structure, featuring as it does multiple reservations of political authority to religious leaders and Islamic values, the national legislature does not possess the same level of constitutional powers as legislatures in more orthodox democracies.
Perhaps more interesting, therefore, is a second election that will occur on the same day. Iranians will also be electing their Majles-e Khobregane-e Rahbari (Assembly of Experts on the Leadership).
The Majles-e Khobregane is an unusual entity. It’s role is to supervise the performance and, occasionally, the selection of Iran’s head of state, the Vali-e faghih-e (which translates to Guardian Jurist, but is known colloquially in English as the Supreme Leader).
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Guardian Jurist of Iran since 1989
The 88 members of the Majles-e Khobregane are directly elected every eight years by the Iranian people, but only senior religious clerics can be candidates for election to it.
This is an unusual institution by world standards. Many republican nations will elect their head of state by a joint sitting of their national parliament, or by some similar body.
The Majles-e Khobregane is in many ways more like the College of Cardinals that elects each Catholic Pope. Except imagine that the College is a permanent body rather than an occasional gathering. Imagine also that the College is elected by all the world’s catholic people, from candidates consisting only of catholic bishops.
(Actually …, but no, lets stick with Iran for the moment.)
Like the nation’s main parliament, the Majles-e Khobregane elections are contested by Principlists (of which there are currently 59 members) and by reformists (currently 29). A government-appointed panel strictly vets all proposed candidates to ensure that they are loyal to the state’s institutions and national religious principles.
What makes this year’s election special is the age and health of the current head of state. Ayotollah Ali Khamenei – only the nation’s second Guardian Jurist after Ayotollah Ruhollah Khomeini (1979-1989) – has now held the office for 27 years.
At 76, Khamenei’s health is in doubt. He is thought to suffer from cancer and underwent surgery in 2014.
Whilst public discussion of the leader’s personal condition within Iran is constrained, it would seem highly likely that the Majles-e Khobregane which Iranians are about to elect will, at some point during it’s 8-year term, have the responsibility of choosing a new leader for the nation.
The contest between conservatives and reformists this month for this little-known quasi-democratic, quasi-religious assembly could determine the fate of Iran’s current opening to the world.