By Yasmine Mather
Elections for the seventh session of the Islamic Parliament in Iran are very strange elections, even by Iranian standards.
The scrutiny of the Islamic credentials of candidates by the ultra-conservative Council of Guardians has led to a ridiculous situation where many sitting MPs as well as some 2,500 other candidates have been eliminated from the electoral list. If you are a secular candidate, you can't put your name forward for elections, but even amongst the candidates of various Islamic groups, a very large number were considered too "liberal" by the Guardian Council.
Some MPs who opposed this staged a sit-in in the Parliament. Ordinary people remained unimpressed by this sit-in. That was partly because the so called reformist faction has failed to deliver a single "reform" of the clerical regime. They passed laws that were detrimental to working people, with privatisation of services and factories.
The "reformists" were the dominant faction for over four years in the sixth parliament, yet they never challenged the Guardian Council. When they started their sit-in, very few people supported them. Eventually President Khatami sold them out by accepting the final ruling of the supreme clerical leader, Ayatollah Khamenei.
As far as the youth movement, women's groups and workers are concerned, the experience of "reform" from within the Islamic regime has not only failed but is truly dead and buried.
Twenty five years after the February uprising, which ended with the clerics coming to power, the social and economic situation is getting worse. The gap between the rich and the poor is widening. The entire textile industry has been privatised, industries associated with what was the Islamic Foundation, have been privatised: food manufactures, agricultural companies, car assembly plants. There is even talk of privatising parts of the oil and petrochemical industries. These privatisations have made workers unemployed or they've been re-employed on short term contracts with lower wages and worse conditions.
On the social and political scene, there is no tangible reduction in the interference of religion in day-to-day life. People are angry about religion dominating aspects of their private life, but economic problems loom larger - people can't eat, they haven't got bread.
This hatred of the religious state is so strong that right now one would say that the only demand that unites the majority of Iran's population outside of the government is secularism. This is not because of national and ethnic differences between Arabs and Iranians. In 1979 a very large section of the population was religious and in favour of an Islamic state. It is the result of 25 years of religious government.
It is the day-to-day interference of religion that has made everyone favour secularism, and most young Iranians associate Islamic government with corruption and dictatorship.
In summarising 25 years of "Islamic rule", people in Iran would tell you that in the Shah's time, the people at the top would eat their bread and we used to get the crumbs. Nowadays mullahs lick their plates so clean that there's not a single crumb left for the rest of us.
In 1979 the protests were against dictatorship, against the Shah, but the Shah's regime had arrested and killed large sections of the secular opposition. The clerical opposition survived better because it never was that openly against the Shah: it was organising in hiding. When the overthrow of the Shah happened, the secular forces, the left and democratic forces, were very active in the demonstrations and protests but were badly organised. Although the oil workers' strike was very significant in the overthrow of the Shah, workers didn't benefit from the revolution.
The imposition of the Islamic state and the rule of clerics was very quick, and the mistakes of sections of the left who confused the "anti western" rhetoric of the new regime with anti-imperialism created further disasters.
Twenty-five years ago a lot of people who had moved from the countryside to urban areas, and felt threatened by modernisation and westernisation, did support the clergy. But, as they became poorer and poorer, they moved away from those in power. Those who have consistently supported the clergy are the merchants of the bazaar, both financially and politically as well as in their political organisations.
Over 25 years this has changed, because some of these people, especially those connected to larger clerical families, have now become the owners of major capital in Iran. They have replaced the deposed Shah's entourage, and as a result their economic and political aspirations have also changed. They now seek closer relations with the west so that they can benefit from larger international economic deals. Many of these sections of the bazaar are the backers of the so called "reformist" faction.
The majority of the Iranian people see the coming elections as a choice between bad and worse. In the previous parliamentary and presidential elections, Iranians made the mistake of electing the less dictatorial faction, only to realise that their neo-liberal economic policies had disastrous consequences. No wonder they are refusing to participate in these sham elections.