Fact Check: Is Rouhani doing his part to ensure that Iran’s Majlis 2016 elections are free and fair?
President Hassan Rouhani delivered a speech on January 12 during the opening ceremony of phases 15 and 16 of the South Pars gas field, and said that “the Government promised to hold a free election, one in which the security lobbyists and the shadow apparatus do not pressure the executive committees. The Government has fulfilled its promise.”
Expressing optimism about the Guardian Council’s qualification process, which is the next stage candidates have to pass through before they can run in the election, Iran’s president remarked, “God willing, the Guardian Council will take a similar stance and we will witness hope, vitality, and enthusiasm from the people about the election.” Needless to say, behind Mr. Rouhani’s hopeful tone are shades of concern about how the Guardian Council will approach the process of disqualifying election candidates.
Record Number of Candidates Pass First Round of Approval
In a matter of 7 days (from Dec. 19 to 25, 2015), a total of 12,123 candidates registered for the 10th Majlis election. The election executive committees, the government body that monitors the voting process under the supervision of the Interior Minister, has qualified more than 90% of the contenders. Ali Pourmotlagh, secretary for the Interior Ministry’s election committee, announced that “the executive committees for the 10th Majlis elections have qualified 10,967 candidates.”
Comparing the percentage of the candidates that were qualified by the executive committee in the 10th Majlis election with the percentage of last nine Majlis elections shows that Rouhani’s government has broken historical records for qualifying the highest number of candidates for Majlis elections in post-revolutionary Iran.
Before this year, the highest number of qualified candidates came during President Mohammad Khatami’s administration, in which the executive committee qualified over 78% of the candidates who had registered for the 6th Majlis election race. During the 7th Majlis election, only 6,340 candidates were qualified.
Based on the Majlis Election Law in Iran, officials in the Guardian Council and the executive committee of the Interior Ministry will now seek out information on the background of the candidates from four official sources: the Ministry of Intelligence, the Prosecutor General, the Office of Civil Registration and Identification, and Interpol. The Guardian Council then uses this information to make decisions about candidate qualifications.
The qualification of over 90% of the registered candidates by the executive committees reflects well on Hassan Rouhani’s efforts to hold open and free elections, without heavy pressure from the influential security and intelligence apparatus.
“Free elections”? Not So Fast
And yet, holding free elections and creating “an open atmosphere” similar to what exists in Western democracies is extremely difficult under the current system in Iran.
One of the most visible restrictions on open elections is the ultimate power of the Guardian Council to decide who is allowed to run as a candidate. More hidden, though hardly less consequential, is the influence of powerful appointed bodies that often manipulate the entire electoral process. These ‘shadow elements’ have immense financial resources, key positions in the military, access to top-secret security and intelligence information, no accountability to the government or Majlis, and are not subject to public scrutiny.
Thus Hassan Rouhani’s remarks about a “free election” can be considered ‘true’ only in a very narrow sense within the context of the current regulatory and legal framework, and in comparison to the 8th and 9th Majlis elections, held during President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s administrations. Those elections saw the reformist faction almost entirely eliminated from the campaign, effectively erasing one of the key factions in the Islamic Republic’s political structure.
Nevertheless, given the historically high percentage of candidates that have made it through the qualification process so far, we rate as “true” Hassan Rouhani’s claim that the government has fulfilled its promise “to hold a free election, one in which the security lobbyists and the shadow apparatus do not pressure the executive committees.”