How much power does the Iranian president really have?

Protest vote: the 2009 presidential elections were marred by violence after mass demonstrations followed allegations of electoral fraud. Katie Collins/PA Wire

The presidential election in Iran represents the latest instalment in almost 35 years of debate and confrontation over the meaning and power of an executive president in a state controlled by proponents of a much-debated doctrine of Shia Islam.

The level of turnout tomorrow will reflect the extent to which voters still believe in the potential to make use of what the moderate figures call the “hidden and unused” potential of the Iranian constitution from the inside. The result will largely reflect the success of reformers in playing with a political deck which has been stacked by the a clerically-controlled body’s powers to decree who can and can’t stand for election.

According to polls, the race appears to heading towards a second-round run-off between the conservative Tehran mayor and former police chief Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf and Hassan Rowhani, a former chief nuclear negotiator who is a close associate of Hashemi Rafsanjani. The latter has obtained endorsements of reformist former presidents Mohammad Khatami and Rafsanjani himself after a campaign devoted to presenting himself as the man who will bring the crisis with the West to an end and instill moderation in domestic politics.

What happens after the election will be an indication of the level of power residing in the presidency. The office-holder is unusual in being a directly elected non-ceremonial president who is not the most powerful state personality. In Iran, that is the “Supreme Leader”.

In 2009, a repentant electorate showed true enthusiasm for the resurgence of the reformist camp and its two candidates, Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, but - amid widespread accusations of massive electoral fraud - incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was returned, sparking huge public protests and a harsh crackdown by security forces. Both Mousavi and Karroubi, around whom the popular “Green Movement” for reform created itself four years ago, remain under house arrest.

Ahmadinejad’s second term has been characterised by his repeated and unsuccessful attempts to assert the authority of his office against the opposition of the Supreme Council as he sought to revive Khatami’s attempts to assert the president’s mandate “for implementing the Constitution and acting as the head of the executive, except in matters directly concerned with (the office of) the Leadership”. Thus, Ahmadinejad is the most recent of successive presidents who have fallen foul of the limitations in their authority in unsuccessful confrontations with the leader and other powerful institutions of state.

Initial plans for a Gaullist-style president in early versions of the constitution presented to Ayatollah Khomenei were inspired by the French Fifth Republic, but these were muted by giving increased powers to the prime minister. And the primacy of the doctrine of velayat-ye faqih - or guardianship of the jurist - in the final text of the constitution of November 1979, effectively subjugated the presidency to the authority of a religious figure.

This was amply illustrated during the short administration of the first president, Abolhassan Bani-Sadr. He was effectively removed in July 1981 at Khomenei’s behest and went into hiding before fleeing to France (some of his senior government colleagues were not so fortunate). His successor, Ali Khamenei, despite his party controlling both the executive and the legislature between 1981 and 1988, frequently clashed with prime minister Mir-Hossein Mousavi and bitterly complained about his lack of powers during his re-election campaign in 1985.

The awkwardness of the distribution of political power between president and prime minister was dealt with by a council convened by Khomeini a few months before his death in July 1989. Among the more explicit recommendations of the ageing Ayatollah was the “centralisation” of the executive branch and Khamenei succeeded, against the opposition of Mousavi, in securing the abolition of the prime ministership. A prime mover in this manoeuvring was Hashemi Rafsanjani, who became the first president under the new constitution.

Stirrings of reform movement

His eight-year tenure is remembered for the rapid strides the country took in post-war (with Iraq) reconstruction. It was also an era, however, where the need to secure short-term gains had a severe impact on the evolution of political life. In the spring of 1992, Rafsanjani joined forces with the leader and 12-member guardian council to bring about a principle of “approbatory supervision”, which enables the council to strike out candidates without the need to provide a valid rationale or documentation.

Absolute power: supreme leader Ali Khamenei. Iranian government via Creative Commons

The Guardian Council’s notorious screening last month brought a hasty end to Rafsanjani’s 2013 presidential ambitions, when it was informally announced that the former president was too old to sustain the heavy workload ascribed to the post.

The surprise winner of the 1997 presidential elections, Mohammad Khatami, sought to instill some element of freedom of expression and increased popular participation in political life. The process was met with the harsh reaction of the security and right-wing elements, to the extent that Khatami famously claimed that there was an engineered crisis every four days during his tenure.

The reform process largely failed because of Khatami’s almost romantic attachment to the nezam, or political system. This was perhaps best illustrated when he declined to follow the request of his reformist allies who called on him to refuse to organise the parliamentary elections of 2004 after the Guardian Council banned more than 2,000 candidates including 80 deputies.

Return to populism

By 2005 the feeling in the country was one of disenchantment with the reformists who were increasingly perceived as aloof and elitist, prompting a weary electorate to turn to the populist approach of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Ahmadinejad then famously pledged to bring the oil wealth “to the tablecloths” of all Iranian families. His increasingly confrontational management style led to the firing or resignation of hundreds of top-level officials and an economic downturn caused by a combination of restrictive business policies and sanctions imposed by the West which had become alarmed at Iran’s nuclear program.

Battle of wills: outgoing president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad Daniella Zalcman via Creative Commons

Despite its intrinsic limitations and the unsuccessful attempts by previous presidents to convert their political agenda into concrete reality, reformists still see the presidency as the only conduit for delivering their platform and regaining influence - but not full control - over key realms such as foreign policy, the economy and the nuclear programme. For the conservative camp, meanwhile victory in this poll means maintaining its hold on all aspects of political and economic life.

All sides, however, will be anxiously watching the turnout - which will suggest whether or not the populace still believes that the system, as it stands, can after 35 years ever be effective in reflecting the popular will.

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