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Wwwwww.pomed.org ♦ 1820 Jefferson Place NW, Suite 400 ♦ Washington, DC 20036 “Duality by Design: The Iranian Electoral System”
International Foundation for Electoral Systems
1850 K Street NW, Fifth Floor, Washington DC
Tuesday, March 29th, 12:00pm-1:30pm
On Tuesday, the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) held a discussion for the release of
the new IFES desk study entitled ” which provides insight
to the “rules of the game” for Iran’s electoral politics. The event was moderated by John D. Lawrence,
Congressional Affairs Manager at IFES, who made opening remarks and introduced panelists: Yasmin Alem,
author of the desk study; Andrew Reynolds, elections expert and associate professor at University of North
Carolina at Chapel Hill; and Barbara Slavin, non-resident senior fellow at Atlantic Council.
In his opening remarks, John Lawrence noted the important role that elections play in granting governments
legitimacy stating that in order to enforce the rule of law, governments need a presumption of validity.
Yasmin Alem began by stating that the uprisings in the Middle East which have captivated people
everywhere, is similar to the protests which took place in Iran in 2009. She noted that in her study, she looked
at the “rules of the game” for Iranian elections, the modus operandi, and the institutional developments. She
stated that Iran has a Byzantine political structure with different nodes of power including 4 bodies
which are elected including the Assembly of Experts, the Parliament, the President, and the Local Councils.
In the study, she looks at the three of these bodies and the election processes for them. Alem stated that since
the Assembly of Experts has not done anything of note in the last 30 years, she chose to exclude them from the
Alem briefly discussed how members of parliament are selected every four years in a two-round electoral
system that uses match lists as well as the majority round-off system used to elect the president every 4 years
and the single-round plurality voting system used to elect members of the local councils. She also noted the
paradox of Iranian politics which is a combo of authoritarianism and democracy which is theocratic in
Alem stated that the while the elections are not free and fair, they are not insignificant either. She stated that
the political currents and circulation of leaders is a product of the electoral process, noting that Mahmoud
Ahmadinejad lost during local and parliamentary elections. She also noted the cleavage in Iranian politics
between the radical left, made up of the reformists, and the radical right, made up of the conservatives. She
discussed the lack of political parties in Iran, noting instead the rise of factions which form prior to elections.
Alem also discussed the Guardian Council, noting that the idea to have one was first outlined in the 1906
constitution. She stated that the group made up of six clerics and six Muslim lawyers, nominated by the
judiciary and elected by the parliament, sets electoral policies and noted that with 384 offices across Iran,
which are used as and implementing arm of the government, the council dwarves the Interior Ministry. She
also noted that the group is “untouchable.” Alem also briefly discussed the elected institutions and the
unelected ones and noted that only 20-40% of the members of parliament were incumbents and that only
14% of the parliament is made up by clerics.
Lastly, Alem discussed how the Islamic Republic views elections, noting that that to them a higher voter
turnout signifies baya, or legitimacy. She states, however, that this is misguided as a high voter turnout,
www.pomed.org ♦ 1820 Jefferson Place NW, Suite 400 ♦ Washington, DC 20036 has historically not been good for the Islamic Republic as it tends to show a vote of no confidence in the
government. She pointed to how a high voter turnout in 2000 brought a reformist parliament to power and to
the high voter turnout in the 2005 and 2009 presidential elections as examples. She also stated that the March
2012 parliamentary elections will be a litmus test for the future of politics in Iran and that she believes that we
will see a fundamental realignment with conservatives in power instead of the reformists.
Andrew Reynolds sated that questions of political design are salient to democratization efforts everywhere
and noted that elections in democratizing states are not always seen as a positive thing. He stated that elections
have not led to liberalization and transformation in Iran. Discussing the importance of elections he noted that
they allow governments to get a “pulse of the people,” provide a cathartic psychological moment for the
people as they receive validation of citizenship, and stated that the repetitive nature of elections allows for the
people to hold their leaders accountable. Reynolds noted that while sometimes elections are “just for
show,” they can also lead to a “fulcrum moment that forces governments to reform themselves.”
Reynolds stated that the rules of the game are a determining factor of who will gain power in assemblies. He
stated that it is important, especially during transitions, to have people form assemblies, but noted that
they must be open to allow many different voices to be heard. He also discussed the advantages and
disadvantages of proportional election systems as they provide incentives for reconciliation of different
factions, but can also lead to an increased polarization of groups. He pointed to Iraq’s new national unity
government as an example. Election systems measure the stability and effectiveness of governments,
Reynolds said. He also noted the importance of the electoral administration.
Speaking on Iran specifically, he noted that the vetting of candidates by the Guardian Council prevents a
separation of the electoral administration from the election results. He also noted the majority/winner-takes-all
system does not allow for a balanced representation of the people as it ignores minorities.
Barbara Slavin noted that in Iran fraud takes place prior to the elections during the vetting process by the
Guardian Council and stated that in 2009 we also saw fraud take place after the elections as Ayatollah Ali
Khamenei declared Ahmadinejad the victor prior to votes being counted. She also stated that the rules of the
game are also flawed as there is no proper electoral roll leading to high levels of voter fraud. She also noted
the short amount of time for political campaigns with parliamentary campaigns only lasting eight days and the
presidential campaign lasting one month. This, she says, tips the favor to those who are well-known. She also
discussed the difficulties of staging a referendum as it requires two-thirds of the parliament to call for one and
because only the Supreme Leader can amend the constitution. Slavin also discussed how high voter turnout
tends to be a no-confident vote for the regime, pointing to the presidential elections of 1997 and 2009. She
questioned whether there will be a high turnout for the 2012 parliamentary and 2013 presidential elections or
if people will become too disheartened and frustrated to take part.
Addressing a question on what theof Akbar Rafsanjani from Chairmanship of the Assembly of
Experts means for the reformists, Yasmin Alem responded that the regime paid a heavy cost for eliminating
the reformists in 2009. She also discussed reports from imprisoned bloggers who were told, during their
interrogation, that the removal of the reformists had been planned for nearly 10 years. Alem believes that
politically, the reformists are “done.” Barbara Slavin stated that the regime is narrowing its base and may
force Rafsanjani to join the opposition instead of using him in a mediating role. This, she said, may come back
to hurt the regime.
Responding to question on the impact of ethnic diversity in Iran, Alem stated that given how ethnically diverse
the country is, it makes more sense to have a proportional parliamentary system. It was a question that was
previously raised during the early years of the Islamic Republic, but was not addressed as the regime wanted
to consolidate power. Andrew Reynolds stated that proportional parliamentary system with minority quotas
www.pomed.org ♦ 1820 Jefferson Place NW ♦ Washington, DC 20036 may give rise to ethnic tensions which previously did not exist. Alternately, if minorities feel under represented then such a system is advantageous. Addressing a question on whether the whole election administration system needs to be scrapped, Alem stated that she does not believe this is necessary. Rather she called for the Guardian Council’s role in the electoral system to be passed on to an independent commission and have the interior ministry be responsible for the administration of elections. Responding to a question on whether there is a consensus amongst the opposition, Alem stated that there does not seem to be a consensus as it is unclear what the population really wants. She states that there needs to be a referendum on the 2009 elections with all the votes counted. www.pomed.org ♦ 1820 Jefferson Place NW ♦ Washington, DC 20036
Disclaimer: This newsletter, provided by ITIS, is funded by a grant from the Illinois Department of Public Health and supported by Northwestern Memorial Hospital and Northwestern University Medical School. It is for educational purposes only and is meant to summarize the information available at the time of its creation. It should be construed neither as medical advice nor opinion on any sp