There may be no debates or TV ads, much less political parties and a self-appointed group of conservative clergymen reserve the right to exclude any candidate advocating a separation of church and state but Iran's parliamentary election Friday nonetheless represents an opportunity for the Iranian people to make their voices heard. And that's a prospect that has the country's conservative political clergy understandably nervous. Last time voters were presented with such an opportunity, the conservatives allied with the country's supreme spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Khameini, suffered a humiliating defeat, as 70 percent of the voters chose the reformist Mohammed Khatami over the candidate endorsed by Khameini. This time, even though the conservatives managed to axe more than 1,000 liberal candidates before the election, the margin of their defeat may be even higher.
Conservative control of the Majlis, Iran's 270-seat legislature, has helped the clerics to stymie President Khatami's efforts to press through his reform agenda of strengthening the rule of law, providing greater freedom of speech and deepening Iran's Islamic version of democracy. "By most accounts reformers will capture the assembly from Islamic conservatives and hard-liners," says TIME Middle East bureau chief Scott MacLeod from Tehran. "But this being Iran, a victory for the reformers may not be precisely what it seems. While there's consensus on greater opening up to the West and economic reforms, there are important differences in the reform coalition on how far to push for loosening of political and social restrictions."
And control over the legislative and executive branches in Iran doesn't carry quite the same weight in Iran as it might in a Western democracy. "Political power in Iran is divided up among a number of different institutions and power centers," says TIME correspondent William Dowell. The country's highest political office is that of supreme spiritual leader, originally created for Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini after the revolution of 1979 although conservatives and reformers differ sharply on how much direct political control he should exercise. Ayatollah Khameini leads the country's conservative faction, whose control of the Council of Guardians a non-elected body of clerics that has the power to vet candidates and veto legislation as well as over the judiciary, security services and the military, means they will still have much political power even if they lose the Majlis. "Even though the conservative clergy dominate, they have to pay attention to the will of the people and the positions of other power centers," says Dowell. "Last summer's riotous protests against repression of dissent by the conservatives served as a sharp reminder that there's a delicate balance of power in Iran, and that Iranians when pushed too far are capable of rebellion, as they showed in 1979."