Islamic hardliners take control of parliament
Hard-line clerics won control of the Iranian parliament in elections held last weekend. The conservatives are now past the 146 seat mark, giving them a clear majority in parliament, whose new term begins in June. This ends four years control of the legislative body by so-called “pro-reform” forces.
Iran’s reactionary hardliners won at least 149 seats in the 290 seat parliament, denying “liberal” President Mohammad Khatami a base of support. “Reformers” and “independents” totalled only 65 seats.
The ‘Supreme Leader’ of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, declared the elections showed “national and an Islamic epic in the true meaning”. But the result is no surprise whatsoever: it was rigged weeks ago. The pro-conservative Guardian Council, a 12-man appointed watchdog body, banned over 2,500 reformist candidates from standing in the run up to the elections. Amongst those excluded were all the top vote winners from the 2000 election. Subsequently, many reformists called for a boycott of the 2004 elections.
Even foreign ministers from the EU, who have been attempting a rapprochement with Iran’s rulers, admitted the elections were a fraud. Jack Straw, the British Foreign Secretary, said “It’s plain for everybody to see that these were from the start flawed elections.”
One pro-reformist parliamentary deputy, Rasoul Mehrparvar, rebuked Khamenei’s victory declaration by stating, “Victory in a competition without rivals is not epic but a historic fiasco.”
The majority attitude of Iranian workers and young people towards the elections is revealed by the low voting turnout. According to official figures, it stood at just over 50%, down from 67.2% in the last parliamentary elections in 2000. Only 33% voted in Tehran, the capital and the largest city.
While the banning of candidates was a key factor in stopping many people voting, the failure of the reformists to provide any change was another reason for the passivity of most workers and youth.
Khatami nothing to show
Four years ago, the reformists were swept to power on a huge wave of hope. With the presidency already in the hands of Mohammad Khatami, most Iranians expected big changes in the theocratic state. But parliamentary bills were blocked by the Council of Guardians and the conservative right closed pro-reform newspapers and carried out arrests.
After four years in parliament, the reformists had nothing to show. Nor did they support the students and youth that went onto the streets to protest against the rule of the clerics. In fact, Khatami called for “restraint” as the police rained down batons on students demanding democracy and better living standards. The more pro-Western parliamentary reformers want change, but they want it to be slow and controlled. They are terrified of the masses taking independent action and threatening the whole system.
Unsurprisingly, workers and youth turned away from the so-called reformists. Fewer voted for them in local elections last year, leading to the right wing retaking control of the councils. Given this result, some of the hardliners were reportedly secretly furious at the Council of Guardians crude disqualification of thousands of reformist parliamentary candidates for the 2004 elections; these conservatives were convinced they could have won more seats anyway, as the reformists have lost so much support.
However, the hard-line-dominated parliament will now find itself under pressure to deliver the goods for working people. During the election, according to the BBC Online (24/02/04), “they raised expectations of progress and prosperity, especially in the economic arena.” Their slogans and campaigning names “all stressed the need to put factional struggles aside and to get the nation back to work.”
But to do that, the hardliners will have to give jobs to youth and make huge investments in the economy.
On the face of it, Iran’s economy is performing quite well at the present time. The country has huge energy resources, providing 7% of the world’s proven oil reserves and gas supplies only second to Russia. The economy grew by 7% for each of the past two years, and is forecast to expand by 6.5% in 2004 and 2005. Public debt is low, the country has a trade surplus and government expenditure has risen. Furthermore, Iran has avoided the conflicts that have engulfed neighbouring Afghanistan and Iraq.
However, the ruling elite are not getting the levels of foreign investment they want. The economy is not diversifying and remains closely tied to oil. Fluctuating oil prices can cause havoc in the economy: for several years during the 1990s, low oil prices put the economy in the doldrums. On top of this, Iran still faces sanctions imposed on it by the US nine years ago, and the large state sector is described as “bureaucratic and wasteful”.
With nearly a third of Iran’s 68 million population below the age of 14, immense pressure is exerted on the country’s labour markets. Unemployment is officially 16% but thought to be really far higher. It is estimated that 800,000 new jobs a year are required just to keep standing still.
Many ruling elite economists argue for large levels of foreign investment. The high level of “political risk” is a reason given by Western powers preventing overseas investment, despite the economy performing relatively well. Iran is described as “highly speculative” and carrying the same degree of risk as the Ukraine, Indonesia, Lesotho and Cape Verde.
What the capitalist powers really mean is that they want Iran to open up to neo-liberal policies and for the government to become more amenable to Western capitalism. These powers demand a further “reduction” in the role of the state and more “private sector competition.” This can only mean more attacks on the working and living conditions of working people.
The economic situation will put big strains on the new government and can open up disputes within the conservative camp; between the “more pragmatic, more moderate, more educated, more professional conservatives on the one hand, and the more ideologically-orientated, more fundamentalist, more hard-line conservatives on the other,” according to Sadegh Ziba Kalam, professor of politics at Tehran University.
In that respect, Iran may repeat the pattern of the Hashemi Rafsanjani’s presidencies (1989-1997), when his “pragmatic conservative policies”, were often attacked and undermined by hard-line ideologues.
None of this is a solution for working class and youth of Iran. This year marks the 25th anniversary of the revolution that swept away the brutal rule of the Shah. Largely due to the mistaken policies of the communist party, which squandered its mass support by looking to the lead of the Mullahs, before the clerics turned on the communists suppressed them, the revolutionary movement eventually went entered the cul-de-sac of a reactionary “Islamic Republic”. All the hopes of the masses for real social and economic change were dashed under the rule of an entrenched hard-line majority. The election of President Mohammad Khatami in 1997 enthused millions, who thought he would introduce real changes. But Khatami’s failure to deliver has left many people disillusioned about the whole system. He “modernised” the economy. This meant opening up more to the multinational companies and neo-liberal polices. The vast majority of Iranians remain no better off than they were before Khatami came to power.
The sort of social and economic conditions facing Iranian working people was starkly revealed by the tragic earthquake that struck the city of Bam, on December 26, last year. It was revealed that poor building methods and a lack of proper regulation meant housing simply collapsed as the earthquake struck, killing tens of thousands.
Under the former Iranian president, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who came from the area, economic zones to encourage investment were set up in the region. Thousands of migrant workers, brought in to construct the zone’s new buildings and to build infrastructure, were housed in poorly made accommodation – amongst the buildings that fell part last December.
The Iranian leaders are acutely aware that prior to the 1979 revolution many earthquakes struck the country and the Shah’s administration showed only indifference and incompetence in response. It was Islamic groups that led the humanitarian effort. These events played a big role in undermining the Shah’s rule.
After the Bam earthquake, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, visited the ruined town and vowed that it would be rebuilt. President Mohammad Khatami followed, and admitted, “Whatever we do, it will still be too little.”
It is little surprise then that this year’s rallies celebrating the anniversary of the revolution received a lukewarm response in general and were mainly made up of regime loyalists. For half the population, the revolution is an event that happened before they were born. The gulf between the ruling elite and the masses has never been greater.
The false hope of the “reformists” has left many workers and youth disappointed and disillusioned. But this mood cannot last for very long. The failure of the system to provide jobs and decent living standards will force working people to take to the road of struggle again. Blocked at the electoral level, oppositional movements can develop in workplaces, in colleges and in communities.
There is huge pent up anger with the system, especially amongst the youth. Many have access to the internet and are searching for ideas and a way out. Explosive movements in the universities can be sparked off by many issues.
Iran has a proud history of worker’s struggles, including strikes in recent years that were brutally suppressed by the Islamic regime. Nevertheless, strikes and social movements are inevitable in the conditions in Iran. When the working class moves into action, society will be shaken from top to bottom. The best traditions of the revolutionary movement of 25 years ago will be rediscovered. This time, the working class will have the terrible experience of Islamic rule behind them, and will look for another solution.
A mass socialist party, representing the working class and youth, can lead a struggle for power, overthrowing the reactionary rule of the Mullahs and capitalism.