External Affairs

Iran’s Guardian Council Is All Powerful but That Doesn’t Stop Locals From Asking Questions

Ahead of the presidential election, Iranian journalists put forth some tough questions to the country’s most powerful body, including about it not being in favour of female candidates.

Iran is gearing up for presidential polls set for May 19. Credit: Reuters

Tehran: “How can the judiciary’s neutrality be believed?” “Is there any logic to the decisions taken by the Guardian Council?” “Are you taking action against state TV for allegedly being biased for one candidate?”

On the last day of Iran’s three-week presidential election campaign, the spokesperson of the Guardian Council – arguably Iran’s most powerful body – got a grilling from journalists in a four-star hotel in central Tehran.

Certain western capitals may hold a different perspective on Iran’s political system, but it is certainly a democracy – albeit one set within a framework controlled by the Guardian Council.

For Iran, being perceived as a functional democracy is certainly very crucial at this point of time – given as it is in the cross hairs of mostly autocratic Arab states, Israel and a Trump-ruled US.

Most observers believe that the May 19 presidential elections will largely be free and fair. There is no expectation of a repeat of an outright malpractice in the vote count, as was seen in 2009 and which fuelled the green movement after the results were announced.

Therefore, Guardian Council has been certain to be seen as transparent as possible under the redlines of Iranian political during this election. It’s latest innovation has been to invite representatives of the candidates to the council, which will supervise all the process of the voting and counting.

At a press conference – which had simultaneous English translation for foreign scribes, spokesperson Abbas-Ali Kadkhodaei said that 200 cases of “wrongdoing and campaigning misconduct” had been reported to it.

Guardian Council spokesperson Abbas-Ali Kadkhodaei. Credit: Devirupa Mitra

“The Guardian Council had started monitoring as soon as the campaigning started. The monitoring process will continue 24/7 and these reports of wrongdoings will be checked by what is stated in law. Then, we will consult with interior ministry and if agreed, then the complaints will be sent to judiciary [for prosecution],” Kadkhodaei said.

The 12-member Guardian Council is made up of six clerics and six jurists, who are the ultimate authority in vetting presidential candidates and have veto power over legislation passed by parliament.

For this round of elections, Iran’s 12th presidential poll, 1,636 candidates registered – the largest number since the Islamic revolution. Ultimately, however, only six qualified.

An unprecedented number of women, 137, also registered, but unsurprisingly, none were accepted.

“It seems that the Guardian Council is not in favour of female candidates,” a women journalist said, in a pointed statement to the council spokesperson.

Kadkhodaei replied that there had been “massive debates” about female candidates. “Guardian Council has a research department which did work on having female candidates,” he said, adding “Hopefully, we receive some inputs from candidates to work on Article 115 of the constitution which interprets the capacity of female candidates to run.”

He was referring to the constitutional clause that describes the qualification of a president. The term ‘rejale mazhabi-siasi’ has, so far, been interpreted as ‘religious and political men’ – though supporters of women’s rights have noted that it could also be translated as ‘personalities’.

“We discussed whether female candidate can run, but final decision was not in favour of having female candidates run in the election,” Kadkhodaei said.

Also read: Why Ebrahim Raisi, Conservative Challenger in Iran’s Election, is Giving Rouhani Cause for Worry

With 99% of the registered candidates not allowed to stand for the direct presidential election, there were a slew of questions about the reasons for choosing the candidates. “Is there any logic behind it?” asked an Iranian journalist to the council spokesperson, noting that most of the registered candidates did have the requisite credentials as per the law.

“Having a good executive resume is one of these factors, but there are many other factors that are taken in consideration,” Kadkhodaei answered.

“We cannot publish the details of the concerns of the Guardian Council,” he insisted.

However, he did reveal that the “minimum vote” required to be “cleared for running is seven out of 12 [members]. If you get six votes, then that person cannot run”.

When a foreign journalist wondered how the two-term former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad did not pass muster, he deflected, “He couldn’t get the necessary votes to be qualified in the elections.”

An Iranian journalist even referred to the notorious 2009 elections, raising questions on the impartiality of the Guardian Council itself.

“In 2009, some of GC members were involved in campaign. After eight years, we see that one [member] of the Guardian Council is making speeches for a particular candidate,” said the scribe.

Kadkhodaei demurred. “I am not going back to the past. You may not be right about 2009.” Addressing the specific allegation, he said “Mr [Mohammad] Yazdi, as part of clerical society, was simply present [at the event]”.

Another reporter described the process of investigating electoral complaints as “vague”. He even hinted that the judiciary, which was the final arbiter on “cases of wrongdoings”, may be a political actor.

“There is much talk that [the] judiciary is biased in favour of one candidate. What should Guardian Council do on such concern?” questioned the journalist.

It was a sharp allusion toward the hardline candidate Ebrahim Raisi, Rouhani’s challenger, who has occupied various posts in the judiciary. While there has been no public remarks, Raisi is widely perceived as the candidate preferred by the supreme leader, as well as the security establishment.

Kadkhodaei repeated that the Guardian Council would act based on the election law.

There was also a question about the impartiality of Iranian state television, which is directly under the office of the supreme leader. “Is state TV allowed to support one particular candidate. Is [Hassan] Rouhani’s complaint sustained or not? One candidate called President Rouhani a liar during debate. Are you doing something about it?”

The Guardian Council representative noted that as per electoral law, national property cannot be employed for some particular candidate. “Some newspapers, state media, government offices and departments – all those who use the national budget are not allowed to support one particular candidate”.

Kadkhodaei added that the complaints can only be acted upon if they are “substantiated”.

Also read: In Iran Election, Rouhani’s Real Opponent is the Economy, Not Conservatives

Rouhani’s campaign film had been censored on state television, removing references to former Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi, former parliament speaker Mehdi Karroubi and former President Mohammad Khatami. While Mousavi and Karroubi are under house arrest, Khatami has an informal media ban. Rouhani’s campaign had registered a complaint with the judiciary.

“If the judiciary system comes to the conclusion, we will support those reports,” the Guardian Council spokesperson said.

In the run-up to the elections, there has been a visible relaxation on the subjects referred to the campaign, with candidates bringing up sensitive subjects during the televised debates.

Iranian journalists told The Wire that press conferences usually feature tough questioning, but there are some redlines. The one authority who is never publicly criticised is the office of the supreme leader.

Just like inside the hotel, arguments and debates continue to rage on in Tehran’s public and private spaces, with the 56-million electorate being highly​ invested in the elections

For Rouhani’s campaign, the main object now is to get their votes to the polling booth.

A high voting percentage is seen by the supporters of President Rouhani as a critical barometer of his re-election. The interior minister predicted 72% turnout – but most observers believe that it should be in the 60s.

A pro-Rouhani analyst Saeed Laylaz told The Wire that he expects the turnout to be around 65%. “If it is less than that, it could be trouble for us,” he said.

Laylaz expressed confidence that Rouhani would be re-elected. He pointed out to the viral videos of the black-turbaned Raisi meeting with much tattoo-ed controversial rapper, Amir Tataloo, where the latter endorsed the senior cleric and even explained the meanings of his tattoos. Tataloo had been arrested in 2013 and 2016 for his underground music. However, he also made a video for the Iranian army in praise of nuclear energy just before the nuclear deal was signed in July 2015.

Hardline candidate Ebrahim Raisi gets a last-minute endorsement from Iranian rapper Amir Tataloo.

“They wouldn’t be doing this [meet with Amir Tataloo], if they were not worried,” claimed Laylaz, who as part of Rouhani’s campaign has been giving speeches in educational institutes across Iran.

As per IPPO, Rouhani has a “95% chance to secure 59% to 67% of the vote”. However, Iranian public polling has still not had a precedent of being reliable.

The Rouhani camp is hoping that urban Iran, especially, would cast their votes in large numbers. As per 2011 census, 67% of Iran’s population are in urban regions, with Tehran being the biggest city. “However, last time 90% of voters in rural Iran cast their vote, but the turnout was 40% in Tehran,” said Laylaz, adding that even rural voters had flocked to Rouhani in 2013.

Heated debates on Tehran’s streets

Outside University of Tehran’s main gate on the afternoon of May 16, Sara and five friends, all in their early twenties, stood on the pavement with a hand-written sign. “If you don’t want to vote, please convince us not to vote #talkchallenge,” it said. While Sara sported a green ribbon on her wrist, all of them also wore purple ribbons – the colour of Rouhani’s candidature.

A woman holds a sign reading ‘If you don’t want to vote, please convince us not to vote #talkchallenge’ outside the University of Tehran. Credit: Devirupa Mitra

Within a few seconds, 22-year-old Zainab and her friend stopped by and for the next half hour they talked and argued, while passersby paused to listen and joined in.

“Tell me what are the achievements of Barjam?” Zainab asked.

“There are now cheaper medicines for poor,” said 21-year-old Mahdad Haghighi.

“That is one achievement. Tell me more…”

“We can buy more airplanes…”

Then, Sara interrupted, “We can list several achievements, but you will always say, one more”.

It was but a slice of the debates which have fiercely been going on among Iranians of all classes – on streets, inside houses and on social media. The conservatives have campaigned on a platform that economy has not improved, despite the nuclear deal. For them, JCPOA – or its Persian acronym Barjam – was equivalent of Iran being sold out to the west. This is, of course, fiercely contested by Rouhani supporters who point out that economic indicators have improved in all categories, and that the nuclear deal has been advantageous for Iran to open out to the west.

Impromptu and heated street debate on Iran nuclear deal near University of Tehran’s main gate. Credit: Devirupa Mitra

Haghighi explained that along with 20 other friends, they had been standing around the streets of Tehran to ask people to go out and vote. “Iranians have a very bad memory. We forget what has been achieved in last four years”.

The response has been good, but he believes that there were three kinds of Iranian voters. “The first ones are the Rouhani voters. The second are the Raisi supporters, who cant be convinced in any way. The third are those in the middle who say that they won’t vote. We are talking to them.”