05/15/2017, 11.32
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The ayatollahs pull against the democracy of presidential elections

by Luca Galantini

On May 19, Iran will choose its president. But power is always in the hands of the Ali Khamenei and the Guardians of the Constitution. The population and above all the young people want reforms and openings to the world.

Milan (AsiaNews) - On May 19 more than 50 million Iranians will be called to the polls to elect the new President of the Republic, as well as a limited number of vacant parliamentary seats and important municipal councils.

Presidential elections have always been a benchmark for the evolution of the rate of democracy in the Iranian political institutions because they focus attention on the crux of the clutches between elective politics and religious office which in fact and under the law exert sovereign power in Iran.

Many issues dominate the political debate in Iran today: the issue of human rights; The status of women and political dissidents; The desire of younger generations to free themselves from the overwhelming hood of moralistic legislative rigorism imposed by the Shiite clergy; The endemic economic crisis that accounts for a youth unemployment rate of over 30% despite Iran being one of the major oil producers in the world; Overcoming isolation in foreign policy and international economic sanctions.

All these issues have always and in all cases revolved around the relationship of power between the President of the Republic, who plays a similar role to that of a head of government in the West, and the Supreme Religious Guide, today Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who is the actual Head of State of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

There is an unresolved paradox within the Ayatollah political system in Iran.

Indeed, the institutional legal order of the Republic of Iran is the emblematic example of the hope of the Shiite Islamic clergy to bring democracy and theocracy together, primacy of politics on secular institutions and primacy of religion on politics.

The attempt to accomplish what was termed religious democracy in the early 1980s was in reality brought all power into the temple of the Shiite clergy, which in fact "armed" the Iranian institutional political apparatus by subordinating it to their own will.

For nearly two decades the electorate has expressed itself in the sense of the need for a profound change in the progressive and reforming direction of the country's political set-up. This has been evident since the election and reconfirmation in 2001 of Mohamed Khatami up to the current outgoing President Rohuani, advocate of dialogue with the West and advocate for the reform of the rights of the citizen, a concept which up to now is outside the Iranian legal system.

But since then the expectations of civil society have been repeatedly frustrated by the tightening of the religious conservative establishment, which has Khomeini's successor as its point of reference.

The presidential elections have, therefore, been the red flag of the deep malaise that blocks the process of democratic development in the great Shiite nation.

Let us briefly examine the complex Iranian institutional structure.

A complicated constitutional mechanism launched in 1979, since the advent of the power of the Shiite Islamic clergy, allows the country's highest religious authority to control and in fact "censor" any initiative of parliamentary legislative power.

In fact, at the top of the Iranian state system, the Constitution includes the figure of the Supreme Religious Guide, Veljayat-e Faqìh, a jurist who is an expert in Islamic law - which in fact embodies the powers of application of the Constitution through an indefinable series of decisions.

Indeed, it is Ayatollah Khamenei who appoints religious members of the Council of Guardians of the Constitution, which has the task of ensuring the constitutional legitimacy of the laws promulgated by Parliament. And it almost always happens that the Council's religious authority systematically bans every parliamentary reform law in the name of fidelity to the constitutional principles of religious democracy.

The "preventive" control power, in reality a power of genuine political censorship, is exercised by the Council of Guardians of the Constitution also through the power to select, admit or discard the candidates to the Presidency: progressive candidates or those undesirable to the Shiite clergy are not allowed in the elections.

Moreover, the highest religious authority nominates and in fact directs the Council for Discernment, a legal body that has the curious task of resolving institutional-legal issues that have no resolution according to conventional canons between the Council of Guardians and Parliament.

The same lay members of the Council of Guardians of the Constitution are appointed by the jurisdictional power, but the problem is that the appointment of the Supreme Judicial Council is still reserved to the Veljayat-and Faqìh.

In short, the constitutional system is thought of on an autocratic model in the image and likeness of the highest religious authority. Despite its being able to always count on a majority of parliamentary support, it can oppose any action of the executive and legislative power, manifestation of the will of the people, and to stop the attempt to ferry the country to a more form substantial democracy, in which respect for the values ​​of Islamic religious tradition does not translate into the oppression of the fundamental rights of expression of the freedom of the citizen.


Lastly, it should be considered that the "politicization" of the Shiite clergy has led the latter to have enormous reservoirs of economic power through the management of religious foundations - bonyad - paramilitary social assistance tools that absorb a significant percentage of the otherwise unemployed Iranian labor force.

The elimination of the main obstacle to the democratic development of Iranian civil society therefore necessarily passes through the gradual redefinition of the powers of religious authority in constitutional political matters. In this way the legal framework of the Khomeinian dream of "religious democracy" is based on the root of the subordination of the country's political activity to the primacy of religious affiliation: a wager that seems perhaps too revolutionary but which is surely felt by Iranian public opinion.

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