The resounding victory for reformist candidates in Iran's recent parliamentary elections may prove to be the turning point in Iran's nascent democracy movement. In any case, the election results deal a damaging, perhaps fatal blow to the country's hard-line clerics who have ruled the country for more than 20 years.
"This was a victory for the people," said Mohammad Khatami, the reformist President whose own overwhelming election nearly three years ago signaled the ascendancy of a reformist movement, which has worked to change Iran's conservative-dominated theocratic system.
A broad coalition of reformists supporting Khatami won 170 of 290 seats in the formerly conservative-controlled Parliament. The coalition is expected to win the vast majority of the 65 seats that are to be decided in run-off elections in late April. The commanding reformist majority clears a major obstacle from the path of reform initiated by Khatami.
"This is a victory for democracy and a strong defeat for the conservatives," said Abdullah Nouri, a powerful reformist cleric serving a jail sentence for his opposition to hard-line clerical rule.
Since Khatami's election in May 1997, a loose coalition of reformists has been struggling against the country's powerful conservatives, who still control key levers of power. This democratic coalition formed into a political party known as the Islamic Iran Participation Front (IIRP) headed by Khatami's younger brother. The IIRP, which won the vast majority of seats, displayed impressive organizational strength, and some observers are predicting that the party could become the dominant force in Iranian politics over the next ten years. IIRP reformists call for greater democracy, the establishment of civil society, including a free press, and the rule of law.
Tehran's streets and private homes were full of rejoicing voters after the February 18 vote, observers said. With popular expectations high, reformists have cautioned Iranians not to expect dramatic changes overnight. Twenty years after Iran's Islamic revolution, Iranians are frustrated by soaring prices, excessive social restrictions, lack of political freedoms, high unemployment, and low wages. An inability to deliver results could strain the popularity of pro-Khatami reformists, who previously blamed conservative MPs for blocking changes.
Since Khatami's election, a lively and vibrant pro-reform press has fueled the democratic movement, much to the chagrin of conservatives, who have used their considerable judicial powers to close down newspapers and jail editors. After the elections, reformist newspapers gloated with headlines such as: "Freedom Defeats Dictatorship." The new Parliament is expected to institutionalize some of the press freedoms permitted by the liberal Minister of Culture, Ataollah Mohajerani.
The Parliament is also widely expected to move quickly to loosen some social controls, including a possible repeal of a ban on satellite dishes, and the introduction of legislation that would ensure greater social and political freedom. In addition, Parliament is expected to amend judicial and investment laws. Reformers consider the country's existing investment framework to be cumbersome, effectively discouraging foreign investment.
Questions abound about the meaning of the elections. Saeed Hajarian, a leading reformist newspaper editor and theoretician said: "The people have spoken. They want democracy." Other experts and observers wonder if the people understand the implications of civil society and democracy. "I think this was an extension of the protest vote for Khatami a few years ago," said journalist Dariush Sajjadi. "I think we [the people] are pretty sure what we don't wantconservative clerics, a bad economy and meddling in our personal lives.
"We still have not worked out what we DO want." Sajjadi added.
Sajjadi has a point. Two of the leading vote getters were the relatively unknown brothers of Khatami and of jailed reformist cleric Abdollah Nouri. "I am voting for everyone that the conservatives have attacked. I am voting for Nouri by electing his brother," said one voter at a Tehran polling booth.
Still, the reform program, if implemented at least in part, could mean an end to the Islamic republic in its current form. President Khatami's call for political pluralism and democracy run directly counter to a key pillar of the Islamic Republic -- the office of the Supreme Leader. The institution of the Supreme Leader, known as velayat-e-mutlaq-e-faqih. ("The absolute guardianship of the jurist") grants king-like powers to the cleric who currently holds the title. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Khamenei favors the conservatives but has not personally acted against the reform movement in a dramatic fashion, though he has put a few spokes in the wheel.
Khamenei who voted against Khatami in 1997 -- could decide the fate of Iran's democracy over the near-term. However, reformists like Abbas Abdi, who took part in the United States embassy hostage-taking in 1979, say that the conservatives may be able to stem the tide, but they won't be able to stop it.
"With drastic actions, they can turn everything around," Abdi said. "But then they would have a counter-revolution on their hands a couple of years later. So, our fate is in our own hands and we must not let the opportunity slip away."
Afshin Molavi is a journalist based in Tehran, Iran. His work has appeared in the Washington Post.