Letter from Iran: Reformists struggling to return to relevance

Posted in Iran | 08-Jul-05 | Author: Michael Slackman| Source: International Herald Tribune

Iran's president-elect Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
TEHRAN Five years ago, Iran's political reformists controlled the presidency and had just won an overwhelming majority in Parliament by promoting an agenda that promised to curtail the role of clerics in the government and to spread democracy, human rights and the rule of law across the nation.

But they have been run out because the conservative establishment succeeded in cutting them off at nearly every turn - but also because they failed to keep in touch with the people they had promised to help.

"What we had not calculated was that we had lost the masses," said Mostafa Tajzadeh, a former deputy interior minister active in the reform movement. "That was a shock."

Presidential election day 2005 turned Iran's political world upside down, when voters handed the role of reformer to a religious conservative who supports the clerical-control system.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, 49, the appointed mayor of Tehran, ran as an outsider with a platform that called for cleaning up corruption and providing economic relief to the poor. Even some of the top leaders in the reform movement acknowledge that a man who once served in the Revolutionary Guard and the militant Basiji militias won the protest vote.

"People showed that they want reform and they don't like the ruling system," said the departing president's brother, Mohammad Reza Khatami, the leader of the Islamic Participation Front, Iran's largest reform party. "People are not happy with their way of life."

As Ahmadinejad prepares to build a government in collaboration with his conservative allies, the withered remnants of Iran's reform parties are struggling to plot a strategy for a return to political relevance. For days after the ballots were tallied, reform leaders offered few public comments or postmortems on where they had gone wrong - or where they planned to go.

Now, some of the movement's leaders have begun to acknowledge that they lost, in part, because they became the party of the elite. They acknowledge that they focused so exclusively on changing the system, and more esoteric concepts of democracy, that they forgot about people's practical concerns, like feeding their families.

"We were the party of the intellectuals," Khatami said in an interview last week. "So we must change this to develop ideas for the poor and workers. We will still talk about democracy and human rights, but we should explain to people how it will make their lives better."

There is hardly a consensus on how to achieve that, though. And now that conservatives have a monopoly on power, it is not clear how much room they will be willing to give the reformers to operate - or if they will instead try to shout them out of the political arena.

Some reformers want to work strictly within the legal boundaries of the system, insisting that while they are critical of the leadership, they are not anti-revolutionary.

Others insist that the ruling clerics will never give an opposition party sufficient room to grow, so they want to create a satellite television channel, based abroad, to beam their political ideas into people's homes, a move that probably would be ruled illegal.

Still others are talking about putting their opposition message out through the Internet.

One point of consensus seems to be a belief - or perhaps a hope - that now that the conservatives control all the institutions that run the state, they will fail to improve life and the door will open once more to a Western-oriented style of reform.

Khatami said, in a reflection of his party's experience, that once the outsiders were in power they would be perceived as insiders and would lose public support.

"This is a temporary failure for us," said Issa Saharkiz, a journalist and adviser to the reform candidate in the presidential election, Mustafa Moin, who did not make it into the runoff.

Saharkiz said the conservative clerics, including the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, no longer had a reform-controlled government to hide behind when things went badly.

"The shields are gone and the swords are at the leaders' neck," he said.

When Mohammad Khatami was first elected president in 1997 with 70 percent of the vote, he entered office with a mandate. Three years later, appearing unstoppable, candidates aligned with Khatami swept into Parliament, taking a majority and promising to limit the role of clergy in running the country, free newspapers and institute the rule of law.

But the movement's reputation was quickly damaged when Parliament acquiesced to the will of Khamenei by abandoning plans to pass a law in 2000 to strengthen press freedoms, the first of many setbacks that undermined their support.

Khatami never used the power of his office to build the party that had grown around his insurgent status - the Islamic Participation Front - and rarely challenged a system that shut down newspapers aligned with the reformers, jailed outspoken critics of the clerical system and held a monopoly on state television.

Conservatives eventually took control of Parliament again, after the ruling clerics barred most reform candidates from running.

In 2001, Khatami managed to win re-election, with about 60 percent of the vote, but by then, public attitudes were shifting. Reform leaders were losing support and were perceived as being part of the problem - along with the ruling clerics - and not the solution.

By the time of the 2005 presidential contest, the reform movement was already in deep trouble, but acted like it did not know it.

On Election Day, Khatami, the president's brother, predicted that if the turnout exceeded 60 percent, it was possible Moin could win outright and avoid a runoff against a former two-term president, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who was viewed as the front-runner.

The official turnout was 62 percent, and official results put Moin in fifth place in a field of seven candidates. Rafsanjani instead found himself in a runoff against Ahmadinejad.

Ahmadinejad spoke about economics in very simple terms, telling people he would raise their salaries, help them with insurance and pensions and relocate jobs from Tehran to the provinces.

That message sold - in part because of the messenger, a candidate who lived and dressed very modestly, in spite of his position.

"What added to the plausibility of his message was the way he lived," said Nasser Hadian-Jazy, a political science professor at Tehran University.

When the reformers tried to respond, with an emphasis on democracy and human rights, their message fell flat.

"Their argument was not plausible, after eight years in power," Hadian-Jazy said.