The elections for Iran’s Assembly of Experts concluded late Friday, Iranian time. Also being voted on today were municipal councils. Turnout was apparently heavy at the end, and polling was extended later into the evening than planned. This could be good news for reformers in Iran, as lower turnout is generally expected to favor Iran’s harder-line forces close to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Iran is an authoritarian regime, not a democracy. Yet it holds regular semi-competitive elections, and there are numerous public conflicts between elected officials (such as the no-confidence votes that I have written about before). But what is the Assembly of Experts, and how important is it? The answer to the question of importance is impossible to answer without considering how “institutionalized” Iran’s authoritarian regime is. Institutionalization–whether of a democracy or an authoritarian regime–means broadly the extent to which regular rules and procedures are followed for choosing top leaders and making policy decisions. Institutionalization, however, has somewhat ambiguous effects on authoritarian regimes. In democracies, institutionalization implies flexibility and responsiveness to popular opinion, inasmuch as the rules of democracy connect leadership choice and policy-making to public opinion via competitive elections. The more the rules of electoral democracy are followed, the more responsive the political system should be (holding constant the many variations that often consume the space of this blog in terms of how public preferences are translated through elections and institutions in democracies).
In an authoritarian regime, on the other hand, accountability of leaders and policy-makers is not, by definition, to the electorate. Rather, it is to a selectorate, which is some narrow subset of the population: Those with enfranchised rights to structure leadership recruitment and policy choice. The selectorate in an authoritarian regime may be whatever interests comprise a single ruling party (as in Communist systems), it may be the military officer corps, or some other set of interests usually centered around the state itself or private interests that are dependent on or otherwise closely associated with the state.
Given the narrowness of the selectorate in authoritarian regimes, compared to democracies, greater institutionalization–more following of the rules, whatever they may be–implies more rigidity, rather than flexibility. That is, theoretically, we should expect the impact of institutionalization in the two broad types of political systems to be opposite. If the institutions used in a system enforce accountability of leaders and decision-makers to narrow selectorates, institutionalizing the regime means making it harder for those who are outside the selectorate to break in to the system and influence it.
So, given that we are talking about elections today in Iran for a specific institution–the Assembly of Experts (as well as local offices)–what is this institution, and what is its role (if any) in the accountability structure? Could these elections in any significant way affect policy-making for the remainder of Ahmadinejad’s (possibly shortened) term?
The one clear formal role of the Assembly of Experts is to select the Supreme Leader when that position becomes vacant. The Assembly also has the formal power to oversee and even dismiss the sitting Supreme Leader, but no one expects that the current occupant of that position, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is in any jeopardy of being removed or seriously restrained by the winners of today’s Experts elections. In the sense that this institution has formal powers of supervision that it is not known to exercise this is, of course, an indicator of less-than-full institutionalization. That is, the relative autonomy of the Supreme Leader from oversight and the apparent security of his (life) tenure suggests “top-down” authority is a good deal stronger than “bottom up,” where the “top” is the Supreme Leader himself. This is a rather unremarkable statement: Almost all popular commentary on Iran assumes that the Supreme Leader is, well, supreme.
So is the Assembly of Experts therefore meaningless? Maybe, but I don’t think so. For one thing, one of the reasons its powers are limited is that the candidates for it–while popularly elected–are vigorously screened by a body known as the Guardian Council, which is a panel of twelve clerics, of whom six are appointed by the Supreme Leader and the other six by the elected parliament (Majles). It is easy to look at such top-down screening of candidates for a body like the Assembly of Experts and therefore conclude that the latter must be irrelevant. I would conclude the opposite. That is, the leaders higher up would not take so much care to ensure that the body is stacked in their favor were the body just for show. They–and “they” here includes Khamenei himself–need to ensure that the balance of forces represented in the Experts is a balance that favors them, given that the selectorate is not monolithic. In fact, it is quite divided. And the balance among those divisions will be especially important at the moment of succession–when Khamenei dies or is otherwise unable to continue–and may also be decisive as conflicts continue to arise between Ahmadinejad and other interests represented in the parliament and elsewhere in Iran’s political system.
The succession is potentially an important undercurrent in these elections. Khamenei is in his late 60s, and the Assembly is elected for an eight-year term, so it is possible that the Experts elected today could be called on to select Khamenei’s successor, but it is also possible that it could be the next Experts, due to be elected in 2014, that would have that role. Given the uncertainty about when the succession will occur, and the long term of the Assembly, the contending factions within Iran’s leadership certainly care about their influence within the body elected in 2006.
The main cleavage among candidates running in the Experts elections appears to be that between Hashemi Rafsanjani and Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi. Rafsanjani is a cleric and a former president. He was also the expected front-runner for the presidential election in 2005, which was boycotted by many reformist groups frustrated with repeated clerical veto of then-President Mohammad Khatami’s reform initiatives. Rafsanjani indeed won the most votes in the first round (22.0%, according to official results), but Ahmadinejad (20.3%) came back and won the runoff, 63â€“37. The electoral process allegedly was marred by intervention on Ahmadinejad’s behalf by Khamanei and by the Revolutionary Guards (a military force from the time of the 1979 revolution that exists in parallel to the regular armed forces).
That various factions–there are no formal political parties in Iran–including factions within the “conservative” camp, have to compete to mobilize votes suggests some level of institutionalization in that the balance of interests in elected institutions matters to those at the top of the system. On the other hand, that not only a formal institution with a constitutional role in supervising these elections (i.e. the Guardian Council), but also the Revolutionary Guards and the various other arms of the Supreme Leader’s power have influence over the elections limits the institutionalization of the Assembly of Experts (as well as the parliament and presidency).
Mesbah-Yazdi is a hardline conservative, believed to be a mentor to Ahmadinejad, and the favorite of the most hardline clerics for Supreme Leader after Khamanei. In this context, it is striking that several news reports have hinted that Khamanei himself is attempting to assist the Rafsanjani faction in the Experts elections. In other words, he may be trying to ensure that the body that will pick his replacement is not dominated by those who would elevate Mesbah-Yazdi. And he may also want to rein in Ahmadinejad, by increasing the weight of the Rafsanjani group.
In other words, while the screening of candidates prior to voting means that these elections are at best a vague barometer of public opinion, nonetheless the various camps do have to get out the votes of their supporters, and the Supreme Leader himself appears keenly interested in the outcome.
In the beginning of this post, I mentioned the term, selectorate, several times. So, who is the selectorate in Iran? This is open to interpretation, given the limited information we have about the inner workings of the system. Nonetheless, I think the answer is fairly evident: It is the clergy. All the candidates to the Experts must be clerics, as are the members of the Guardian Council. By far the most important cleric of all is the Supreme Leader. This is a narrow group on which to build a political system, and not one likely to be open to reform. Yet one can’t follow developments in Iran for long without being aware of the considerable pluralism of thought within this selectorate, its narrowness vis-a-vis the rest of society notwithstanding. And, given its narrowness, that means that increasing institutionalization of the Islamic Revolution (as it is officially called) can’t be a good thing. Institutionalization implies further entrenching the narrow interests that decide the major issues and, above all, who the next Supreme Leader will be.
The Iranian regime is certainly not fully institutionalized (whatever that might mean in the context of such a complex system). But it may be getting more so over time, in that the dominant conservative groups within the clergy are increasingly able to shut out interests that they perceive as threatening to them. If relatively more “reformist” candidates do poorly in the Experts elections and in the local elections (where screening of candidates is necessarily less thorough, given sheer numbers), the regime will become narrower still. However, part of the institutionalization of this system is the continuing use of popular elections. If, despite all efforts among the highest clerics represented on the Guardian Council to keep the range of candidates as narrow as possible, candidates more favorable to reformers win more votes, the result could slow down the accumulation of power by the most hardline elements surrounding Ahmadinejad. As noted above, there is some evidence that Khamanei himself wants this. There is, alas, little evidence that he wants a reform opening. Change will come slowly in Iran. But these elections will have some role in determining just how slowly.
Update: Jonathan, at The Head Heeb, notes that the reason “that the Guardians tightened the screws as never before” in their vetting of candidates for this Experts election may have been fear that Ahmadinejad’s allies were intending to take seriously the formal power of the Assembly to dismiss a sitting Supreme Leader. That is, they might not have waited till Khamanei’s death to put Mesbah-Yazdi in the top position. Who would have imagined it, but Ahmadinejad might have been a force for institutionalization! (Remember, as I stated above, institutionalization of authoritarian systems often results in their narrowing, and hence is not necessarily a “good” thing.”)
I apologize for the shortage of specific references above. Most of the research on this entry came from a set of news articles collected of Lexis-Nexis, for which I have no links, and that are copyrighted. The articles came mainly from European and Middle Eastern sources (including some within Iran), and were collected as part of the materials supplied to students for the final examination in my Policy-Making Processes course.