Blog Post - Iran Matters

"Tehran: A City of Hope, Participation and Prosperity"

    Author:
  • Sahar Saeidnia
| Nov. 22, 2017

“Tehran: shahr-e omid, moshârekati va shokoufâ-yi” (“Tehran: A City of Hope, Participation and Prosperity”). One might find the motto of the newly elected reformist mayor of Tehran, Mohammad Ali Najafi, surprising and inconsistent with the Islamic Republic of Iran’s (IRI) political project. Or, conversely, one might interpret it, along with the victory of many reformist candidates in the 2017 local council elections, as a sign of the regime’s opening. Yet, this binary undermines the “complexity of the Iranian puzzle”[1] and is reductive of domestic political processes that have shaped competitive Iranian factionalist politics since 1979. They ignore that, far from being consensual, local elections and city and village autonomy have been contentious issues – beyond simple reformist/conservative competition – since the IRI’s foundation. Indeed, even though the constitution defines elected councils as “the decision making and administrative organs of the country”, the first application decree allowing the organization of local elections was only voted in 1998, after Khatami’s election. Moreover, from the establishment of the Islamic republic until 1996, five versions of the law about the creation and organization of local councils were voted by the Iranian Parliament.[2] With these elements in mind, how can we assess Najafi’s motto and election? What does it say about the significance of local elections in the IRI and, more generally, about contemporary Iranian politics?

To answer these questions, we have to consider first the institutional mechanisms that led to Najafi’s election and, more broadly, what the 1998 decree changed in the centralized Iranian political context. Until the first local elections held in 1999, mayors were appointed by the Ministry of Interior, and they alone administrated Iranian cities and villages. When Khatami’s government ratified the 1998 decree, elected city or village councils were created in all of the country with the purpose of governing municipalities.[3] Since then, local councilors have been elected every four years through direct universal suffrage. During their four years mandate, among their many functions and responsibilities, successful candidates elect the mayor, control the municipal budget, and oversee how mayors implement their decisions (Art. 75 of the 1996 law).

In this decentralized context, Najafi’s election is linked to reformists’ unprecedented victory in Tehran’s city council. It also builds on many negotiations (identifying potential candidates for the job, deciding who to vote for, etc.) between the councilors.[4] However, beyond these factional politics, it gives us other insights on local political dynamics. For instance, one could underline that the elective triumph of the reformist “Hope” list was the outcome of a competition that ran 2,750 candidates (20% of whom were women) in Tehran for the city council seats. In the whole country, around 280,000 candidates registered for 127,610 seats (120,873 village council seats and 6,737 city council seats). Furthermore, despite some limitations, the 2017 candidate pool showed better representation of religious minorities than in past elections (candidates from different religious minorities can run as long as they “believe in and demonstrate their commitment to their own religious principles in practice” (article 26 of the 1996 council election law).[5] Drawing on this data, we can highlight two general processes characterizing both local and national IRI political space.

Firstly, though controlled, local elections in the IRI are – like presidential and legislative elections – quite competitive. Indeed, in 1999, 2003, 2006, 2012, and 2017, city and village council elections have gathered an important – and growing – number of candidates. Results have usually been very tight and led to alternation in power in many local councils. On one hand, this can be explained by the new material, financial, and symbolic resources the access to these local political institutions brings. On the other hand, this competition results from the fact that aspirants from both conservative and reformist factions, as well as independent candidates, have been allowed to run. In other words, since 1999, local elections have proved to be particularly open. As the Parliament controls candidacies (while for legislative and presidential elections they are vetted by the Guardian council), a greater diversity of candidates than one can observe on the national stage has been allowed to access the local political arena (e.g. women, religious minority members, young Iranians, members of the political opposition, etc.).[6]

Secondly, general praising of the high turnout[7] and the relative unanimity on the election results highlight the fact that local councils and state decentralization processes have been significantly institutionalized by the IRI, and that the elections should thus be read beyond the conservative/reformist binary of factional conflict. And this appraisal of the “people’s participation” – be they “brothers and sisters of the revolution” (barâdarhâ va khâharhâ-ye enghelâb), “the children of God” (bandehâ-ye khodâ) or “citizens” (shahrvand) – expresses the importance of electoral legitimacy in the Iranian regime. Even more, it shows how political actors and institutions in the IRI rest on different legitimation repertoires – be they religious, revolutionary, or civic. And these participation and decentralization processes echo a plurality of legitimacies, as they tap into the councilism experience of the revolutionary period, the extensive Islamic tradition of shora, or the civil society and participatory discourses of the 1990’s.[8]

Yet, if one can observe nowadays a consensus about the importance of “consulting the people” (moshârekat bâ mardom) or “enhancing citizen’s participation” (tosee-ye moshârekat shahrvandi), one can also see conflicts regarding how to concretely implement this “participation”. For instance, since 1999, relations between mayors and elected councils have been contentious. In practice, mayors aren’t simply under the supervision of the municipal and village councilors, even though they are elected by them. Also, the elected councilors have found many obstacles and limits to their prerogatives and financial autonomy.[9] For instance, with the fall of state’s financial support and tax reforms (e.g. the Tax Amalgation Law in 2003), they increasingly need the mayor’s support in order to gather the municipality budget. But the most compelling example of these contentious definitions of legitimate participation in the IRI is the electoral reforms of 2011 that coordinated presidential and local council’s elections, and which put the very existence of local councils under question. While debates about how to synchronize these elections were at their heights, some political actors suggested to put on hold the local councils until the next presidential elections, arguing that the Iranian people had already enough channels to participate. After few months of intense discussions, the Parliament finally decided to extend councilors’ mandate by two years.

With these elements in mind, what would be our answer to the initial questions? What does Najafi’s election, and more widely local elections, say about Iranian politics? We could conclude that local councils are not hollow shells, and are increasingly becoming an institutionalized form of local government and participation. Competitive elections reveal real and meaningful rivalry over access to political and social resources that these councils provide. In a broader picture, we could say that issues of power distribution among regime institutions and relations between state institutions and citizens have continually been debated in the very institutions of the Iranian regime, including city and villages councils. In other words, mayoral elections and decentralization processes in Iran have shown Iranian politics to be more complex and nuanced than a classificatory ‘democratic versus authoritarian’ binary would assert. As in many other contexts, the main issues in Iranian politics come down to conflicts about who is legitimate to participate in the Iranian political life, and which forms this participation can adopt.

Dr. Sahar Aurore Saeidnia holds a Ph.D. in sociology from the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sceinces Sociales -- Iris, where she is currently associate researcher. Her main research interests are local institutions and participation in Iran.


[1] H. E. Chehabi, « The Political Regime of the Islamic Republic of Iran”, Government and Opposition 36/1 (2001):48.

[2] For the complete version (in Persian):

http://www.sssup.it/UploadDocs/14633_4_O_Rules_and_regulations_of_Islamic_Councils_MOI.pdf

[3] After each local election, newly elected councilors select the mayor among candidates they recommended themselves. The elected mayor is then vetted by the Ministry of Interior (example of Tehran).

[4] In Tehran, as in Mashhad and Isfahan for example, runners from the “Hope” list won all of the seats (see the list of the 21 councilors). And although first foreseen to be the favorite candidate for the Mayor’s office, Mohsen Hashemi Rafsanjani, son of the late President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, instead became Tehran City Council’s chairman. From an initial list of 30 potential candidates, Najafi was at the end the only one to run.

[5] See results for all Tehrani candidates. On the national level, and according to Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB), 286,385 candidates registered (231,345 for village councils and 55,040 for city councils), among whom 219,100 pursued and were allowed to participate (219,100/95% for village councils and 46,320/85% for city councils). The 2017 elections have known the highest rate of women candidates.

[6] If this specific eligibility regime partly explains the entry of new political actors and greater social diversity, this process also rests upon the social and demographic transformations the Iranian society has known in the past decades.

[7] Turnout varied from 62% to 71% (except 49% in 2003). For 1999, 2003, 2007, and 2013 elections see the Ministry of Interior numbers.

[8] S. A. Saeidnia, « L'expérience politique des conseils municipaux en République Islamique d'Iran. Éléments pour une réflexion sur le concept d'espace public », Cahiers Sens public 15-16 (2013): 129-144.

[9] See K. Tajbakhsh, “Political Decentralization and the Creation of Local Government in Iran: Consolidation or Transformation of the Theocratic State?”, Social Research: An International Quarterly 67/2 (2000): 393; M. Farzaneh, Urban Development Planning, Regeneration and Public Participation: a Comparison between the UK and Iran 2011 (Newcastle: Newcastle University): 167.

For more information on this publication: Please contact the Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Saeidnia, Sahar."Tehran: A City of Hope, Participation and Prosperity".” Iran Matters, November 22, 2017, https://www.belfercenter.org/publication/tehran-city-hope-participation-and-prosperity.

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