Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Larijani landslide questioned by... his own side?

I originally wrote this article for Tehran Bureau, which published it on November 23, 2010.

Majlis Speaker Ali Larijani's recent election as chairman of the majority faction has highlighted the cracks in the pro-regime Principlist camp and the ambiguous nature of democracy in the Islamic Republic.

The central council of the legislature's Principlist faction voted to choose its leader on Sunday, November 7, and depending on the source, Larijani either garnered 44 of 47 votes as the sole candidate or squeaked by with 25 ballots to 20 in a tightly contested race with his rival, Tehran representative and Second Deputy Speaker Shahabeddine Sadr.

The election took place amidst rising tension within the conservative camp. While Larijani and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad have been direct rivals since 2005 when both men ran for president, it would be an over-simplification to describe the animosity among Principlists solely as a power struggle between the two political figures.

A review of news reports, interviews, and official blogs indicates that Larijani obtained only 25 votes, but that creative electioneering allowed his supporters to advance the figure of 44, under the pretense of presenting a picture of unity to the general public.

The Islamic Republic News Agency, run by Ahmadinejad's former media adviser Ali Akbar Javanfekr, reported the correct number of ballots for Larijani, but the misleading figure of 44 was disseminated by a much greater number of outlets, including the '20:30' television news program. This was initially a public relations victory for Larijani supporters, but their subsequent attempts to explain the discrepancy has taken some of the luster off the conceit that the Majlis Speaker is an uncontested leader.

Tension, dissension, and all-out conflict are not new in the Principlist camp. The impeachment of Interior Minister Ali Kordan for having a bogus doctorate -- a move initiated by fellow Principlist and Majlis representative Ahmad Tavakoli during Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's first term is only one example -- but the events following the disputed election of June 2009 have made the fault lines between conservatives even more brittle.

Just in the past nine months, Elias Naderan, representative of Tehran, accused First Vice President Mohammad Reza Rahimi of corruption and called for his arrest in an open session of the legislature; Morteza Nabavi of the Islamic Society of Engineers warned of the ascension of 'deviant Principlists;' Pro-Ahmadinejad goons besieged the parliament building after a majority of representatives voted down the government's attempts to appropriate Azad University assets; and the Majlis voted to remove Ahmadinejad from the chairmanship of the Central Bank's general assembly.

It was within this vitriolic context that the Principlists set about to elect the leader of their Majlis faction, a post that Larijani has filled in addition to that of Speaker for the past two years. The vote had originally been scheduled for Tuesday, November 2, at 6 PM after the evening prayer, Vali Esmaili (representative of Germi, Ardabil province) told Aftab daily. But by Tuesday afternoon, Shargh daily reported that the meeting had been postponed. 'It has become clear that 37 of the central council's 44 members are critics of Larijani's stewardship. [...],' wrote the paper. 'Consequently, Larijani's supporters have again postponed the meeting of the Principlist faction's central council which was to have elected its board.'

The Islamic Revolution faction, a sub-group of the Principlist faction, had yet to decide whether to field a candidate against Larijani. The Islamic Revolution faction was created in early 2009 with one primary message, 'Ahmadinejad is the best presidential nominee for the Principlists,' and as such, their candidate may have had a polarizing effect on the proceedings. They finally threw their support behind Shahabeddine Sadr, who, while not a member of their group, was a conservative with impeccable credentials and an independent streak. Sadr also had close relations with some of Ahmadinejad's key ministers. (The photo to the right shows, from left to right, Sadr, Islamic Guidance Minister Seyed Mohammad Hosseini, Interior Minister Mostafa Mohammad Najjar, and Intelligence Minister Heydar Moslehi)

Sadr, a physician and university professor, had been one of ten presidential candidates in the 2001 race which brought Mohammad Khatami to a second term (Sadr came in 7th place in the first round). While a Majlis representative, he was elected chairman of the national medical association in 2008.

As the deputy chief of the Front for Followers of the Line of the Imam and the Leader, an umbrella organization comprising over a dozen Principlist groups, he was approached by the Society of Combatant Clergy and the Islamic Coalition Party to make another run for the presidency in 2009. He turned down the offer, but made some surprisingly positive remarks about another candidate, Mir Hossein Mousavi, who would go on to become one of the main leaders of the Green movement. 'He believed that Mousavi was a known individual with administrative experience and that he was respected by all,' wrote Khabar Online, which is incidentally close to Larijani. '[He believed that Mousavi] was loyal to the principles of the regime and the revolution, and that his red lines were the Imam [Ruhollah Khomeini], the constitution, and the velayateh faghih ('Rule of the jurisprudent,' principle from which Khamenei derives his power).' It was not unusual at the time for some conservatives to endorse Mousavi and indeed they formed an official organization called Principlist Supporters of Mir Hossein Mousavi.

Sadr was not a member of that group and gave his endorsement to Ahmadinejad. Following the disputed election and in the past year, he has generally refrained from making speeches or appearing on television programs, although he did extend his congratulations to Ahmadinejad and the nation. In May, he was chosen by his peers as the Second Deputy Speaker of the Majlis. Larijani ran unchallenged for the post of Speaker in the same election.

In the central council meeting of November 7, Sadr accepted to run against Larijani for chairman of the Principlist faction of the legislature. There were 47 participants in the meeting -- the 44 members of the central council and the 3 members of the faction's arbitration committee -- and all had the right to vote, according to the statutes of the faction. Per two reports, one arbitrator and one member of the council were absent.

Esmail Kowsari (representative of Tehran), attempted to start the meeting with a few words about the Speaker's record, but was not given the floor. Ballots were distributed and Larijani won 25 votes to Sadr's 20. There were two blank votes.

Here the accounts diverge. 'Upon the suggestion of Mr. [Hossein] Nejabat, after the official vote, an oral vote was carried out by uttering a salavat prayer. A few individuals disagreed with this and the rest said a salavat meaning, Yes, Larijani is the leader,' wrote Principlist representative Hamid Rasai in his blog. 'Immediately, Mr. Larijani's office mobilized and put pressure on various outlets, asking them to report 44 out of 47 votes for Larijani. [...] Some outlets contacted us and said that Larijani's office was insisting that this news be reported.'

Hossein Nejabat is one of Tehran's representatives, even though he is said to live mostly in Ghom (Larijani is one of Ghom's representatives), and is a member of the Society of Devotees of the Islamic Revolution (Jamiyateh isargaraneh jomhouriyeh eslami), which supported Tehran mayor and Ahmadinejad rival Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf in the 2005 presidential election. Nejabat obtained a doctorate in nuclear physics from Durham University in England. 

Larijani's supporters countered with their own version, which was not much more convincing. 'Before the [official] vote, Mr.Nejabat suggested that the vote with paper ballots be considered an exploratory vote (raygiriyeh estemzaji) and that whichever candidate obtained the favor of the majority, he should become the unique candidate of the faction and all of us should vote for him, so that the unity and homogeneity of the Principlists could be shown to the people,' explained Seyed Hossein Naghvi Hosseini (representative of Varamin) to Khabar Online.

What about the salavat prayer? 'The salavat was uttered when Mr. Nejabat made his suggestion and it was asked that those who favored the suggestion should say a salavat,' added Hosseini. Asked why so many central council members were complaining, Hosseini said, 'In any case, this drum of opposition in the central council of the Principlists is nothing new. In my opinion, the opposition of some of our colleagues to Mr. Larijani is entering the sphere of Principlism.'

While the drumbeat of opposition to Larijani is nothing new, neither are irregularities in his election to the chairmanship of the Principlist faction. Last year, when he ran against Morteza Agha Tehrani, 'Larijani's supporters were told that the meeting was at 4 PM and his critics were told that the meeting would start at 4:30 PM,' according to Rasai. 'Twelve of the 44 members of the central council arrived late, after the election had already taken place.'

But, of course, last year, the country was contending with another disputed election.