Iranian elections – no chance for change

With presidential elections in Iran scheduled for 19th May the manoeuvring for position within the Iranian regime is well underway.  Jane Green considers the implications for the ordinary working people in the Islamic Republic of the political chess being played by the clergy.

Under the Iranian presidential system, only the powerful Guardian Council can approve candidates for the presidency or any other key political office.  The Guardian Council itself is under the firm grip of the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, thus ensuring that the ruling theocracy have a firm hold on the ‘democratic’ process.

Heralded as a reformer by certain sections of the Western press, current Iranian President, Hassan Rouhani, has spent four years in office without doing a thing to improve the human rights record of the Iranian regime.  Rouhani has done nothing to support the development of trade unions or advance the position of women in Iranian society.  His neo-liberal economic policies have seen inflation rampant while unemployment has soared.

Despite this, Rouhani will be seeking a further four years in office.  He will not be standing on a platform of extending the misery of the Iranian people, though this is a likely outcome, but as the man who delivered an end to international sanctions through the 5+1 deal with the United States and European Union.  The deal, whereby international sanctions will be softened in exchange for Iran accepting strict controls on its nuclear energy programme, was barely bedded in when the US electorate returned Donald Trump as president.

Trump has been a vociferous opponent of the deal with Iran and, if his foreign policy concerns were not already overburdened, with airstrikes on Syria, bombing Afghanistan and the developing face off with North Korea, rewriting the terms of the deal may have been further up his agenda.  Which is not to say that Trump will not return to the subject of Iran, no doubt he will.  This inevitably means that the forthcoming presidential elections in the Islamic Republic will be shaped by the question of which candidate will come out best in any dealings with the US president over the next four years.

Rouhani’s cards are already on the table.  The more conservative elements in the clergy have fielded little known Ayatollah EbrahimRaisi.  Regarded by many as a likely successor to Khamenei, but lacking experience at political executive level, the presidency is seen as possibly paving the way for Raisi to take over as Supreme Leader.  With Khamenei rumoured to be in the advanced stages of prostate cancer, the need to locate a successor may come sooner than anticipated.

Raisi as a candidate does not come without problems for the regime, bringing his own significant baggage.  Although little known as a politician, he does have a reputation as a ‘hanging judge’, particularly in relation to the massacre of thousands of the regime’s opponents in an especially brutal episode in 1988.  The commemoration of the executions, known as the “national catastrophe”, is a significant event taking place each September in Iran and the diaspora abroad, and Raisi’s role in this atrocity was prominent.

Raisi has been named as one of the members of the committee of four judges that oversaw these executions of political prisoners, labelled as one of the “crimes of the century” by the late Grand Ayatollah Montazeri.  There have been a number of legal cases opened against the committee and those complicit, in various countries around the world – including Canada, which has recognised the 1988 executions as a crime against humanity.  There is a realistic prospect that if Raisi is elected to the Presidency there would be significant barriers to his free movement abroad, including the risk of possible arrest for his role in these crimes.

Most observers believe that Rouhani has a better chance of securing a second term, based on the fact that the Iranian leadership will want to continue the normalisation of diplomatic relations and cooperation with the EU and US.  They will want to see the sanctions lifted and thus remove an immediate existential threat to the survival of the regime. A Rouhani administration is seen as a grouping of mainly able technocrats, many educated in the UK and US, who are best placed to oversee this process of detente.  The attitude of the Trump administration remains a potential barrier to this strategy.

However, it is worth noting that on 24 April Khamenei was quoted on Iranian state television as saying that “candidates should promise to focus on national capabilities and domestic capacities to resolve the economic issues… rather than looking abroad” – in effect distancing himself from one of the pillars of Rouhani’s platform if not throwing his outright endorsement behind those advocating for a more hard-line stance going forward.

Previously, on 20 April, the Guardian Council moved to disqualify the candidature of the controversial former president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, following much conjecture and unsettle in the wake of his putting himself forward quite unexpectedly.

The next day, the regime revealed the rest of the final shortlist to be made up by Mohammad-Bagher Ghalibaf, mayor of Tehran, former commander of the Revolutionary Guards and closely associated with the Raisi faction; Eshaq Jahangiri, first deputy and close ally of Rouhani; and relatively low-profile though fundamentalist politicians, Mostafa Agha Mirsalim and Mostafa Hashemi-Taba.

Thus, regardless of the eventual outcome of the election, there is certainly little cause for hope or optimism amongst the Iranian people.

Negotiations with the government have been ongoing for some time in order to set a national minimum wage, based upon an agreed basket of goods and services.  Over the last year the cost of the basket of goods and services that could provide an acceptable living standard for workers has, according to the National Statistical Centre, risen from $863 to $924 monthly.

The government committee setting the minimum wage in March determined the rate for the current financial year at $287, based on an argument from employers and the government that they were not prepared to accept an increase of more than 14.5% on the previous year’s figure.The basis of the decision was the official inflation rate.  The employers stated that they would not even consider a higher rate, in spite of the fact that the official rate of inflation is widely accepted as being well below the actual rate in the economy.  Thus, Iranian workers are condemned to at least another year of poverty.

In its effort to shackle the rights of workers, the current government has tried to amend the labour law.  The main aim is to make it easier for employers to hire and fire employees.  The current labour law, a legacy of the early years following the 1979 revolution, stipulates that the dismissal of workers should follow a defined process, guaranteeing the right to appeal.  Iranian Labour Law also makes it mandatory that all workers should have contracts of employment with their rights and salaries, observing the minimum wage, and other benefits clearly defined.  Although Iranian employers have long been flouting the labour law, it nevertheless provides a legal entitlement that could be employed by workers organisations and workers representatives.

The regime has been trying to open the labour market to foreign capital.  They argue that the Iranian worker is educated, skilled and cheapest in comparison with those from other similar countries.  However, the labour law remainsan obstacle to inward investment as far as the government is concerned.

Since his election to the presidency in June 2013, Hassan Rouhani’s government has attempted to persuade parliament to agree to change the law.  Trade unions and workers organisations organised a mass demonstration outside the parliament on 15th November as the law makers were due to start their work.  Under pressure, the parliament sent back the proposed legislation to the government.  However, whatever the outcome of the presidential election, there can be little doubt that the government willonce again try to reverse one of the few legal protections afforded to Iranian workers.

Unemployment continues to be a significant threat facing the workers in Iran.  Based on the results of the labour force survey,released recently by the Statistical Centre of Iran, the unemployment rate in2016-17 increased by 1.4%.  The unemployment rate was 11% in the previous year.Based on the results of the study, 39.4 % of the working-age population (aged 10years and older)are considered as active in the labour market.  The results also show that the economic participation rate among women is less than men in urban areas.

According to the report, during the summer of 2016 the unemployment rate for young people aged 15 to 24 years was 30.2%; the unemployment rate for young people aged 15 to 29 years was 26.7%; and 31.9% for the age group 20 to 24 years.In the age group 20 to 24 years, 26.6% of men and 50.6% of women were unemployed.

The rate of unemployment is a significant factor in the mounting discontent amongst the people of Iran and particularly the younger population.  While education outcomes remain generally positive in the country the likelihood of finding gainful employment is clearly diminishing.

International factors will no doubt play some part in determining the outcome of elections in Iran.  Candidates will use the threat of external action or sanctions as a means to try and galvanise the support of the population behind them.  However, it may well be that internal factors play as significant a role and that protests against whoever is elected may yet be a feature of Iranian politics following the result.

Jane Green is National Campaign Officer of CODIR, the Committee for the Defence of Iranian People’s Rights and can be contacted at codir_info@btinternet.com.  For further information on Iran visit: http://www.codir.net/

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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