These remarks were prepared by Dr. Tajbakhsh based on his presentation December 16, 2003. The opinions expressed here are those of the author and in no way represent the views or opinions of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

The discussion about the potential for evolutionary change launched by the Saudi local elections can be usefully added to by an analysis of the recent Iranian experience with local council elections - arguably the most significant in the region. Given that the second round of elections earlier this year was widely seen as a stunning reversal and defeat for the reformists, the experience holds out important, and perhaps sobering, lessons for other countries about the potential contribution of (local) elections can have under basically undemocratic conditions. In general, the Iran case shows the difficulties of maintaining genuine local democratic institutions when democracy is poorly organized within the broader societal structure and polity. With important elections for parliament and the presidency coming up next year—which some observers anticipate to be a moment of truth for the reformers--the recent local elections might be an indicator of things to come. There is not space to discuss the details of the case at length here (which I have done elsewhere) but the outlines are as follows.

In 1999 local council elections (at the city and village levels) were held in Iran establishing a local political or governmental system for the first time (practically speaking) in modern Iranian history. By any measure, this reform for political decentralization was large: about 600,000 candidates competed for about 200,000 council seats (comprising about 110,000 main seats and 90,000 back up reservists) in 35,000 village and over 900 city councils. Overnight this changed the shape of the state, at least formally. This reform finally put into effect the provisions for locally elected institutions that were first introduced in the 1905 Constitution but that had remained a dead letter, more or less, since 1911.

The Khatami reformists (the sponsors of the reform) publicized it widely as an important plank in their reform agenda. They argued that the reform would help de-concentrate power for two main reasons. First, by multiplying the number of representative institutions into the provinces and especially outside of Tehran, it would reduce the entrenched power of the regime in the center through the creation of more reformist-oriented institutions throughout the country. Second, given that these elections would be the only elections in Iran whose candidates would not be vetted by the Guardian Council, more sectors of the society would be drawn in to participate in the political system. There was enormous popular enthusiasm for the council elections and new groups entered the competition: young people, women, professionals, and "independents", i.e. those not explicitly affiliated with either dominant political faction represented in the national institutions (such as the parliament).

Turn-out for voting was just under 65% nationwide and in the major cities a respectable figure of about between 30 and 50% and participation in rural areas running much higher. Although detailed breakdowns are not available nationwide, the fact that the major cities and especially Tehran were dominated by well known reformers created the general impression that the reformers had won a sweeping victory, following Khatami's landslide election victory three years before. The significance of the victory and the stakes around these new institutions in the overall struggle for power were dramatically highlighted by the attempt by conservatives to disqualify several key Tehran reform candidates; and when this failed, by the almost successful assassination attempt on the life of one of the Tehran city council members on the steps of the Tehran city council building.

Four years later, however, the second round of elections in early 2003 painted a very different picture. It was apparent in the run-up to the elections that the enthusiasm accompanying the first round had declined markedly, even more than could be expected in the routinization of popular enthusiasm. Old friends of local democracy (media, politicians, professionals) no longer seemed up-beat, and new friends were not forthcoming. This was reflected most strikingly in the turn-out on election day in Tehran, Isfahan, Shiraz and Mashad, which dropped to between 12-20% of eligible voters. In these cities the reformers were routed and individuals associated with the conservative faction were elected. In Tehran, not one reformer gained a seat. Interpreters, especially outside Iran, generalized these results to the entire country and read it to mean, plausibly, a vote of no confidence in the reformists. (It is noteworthy that 12-15% of the vote is the amount of support conservatives regularly receive in national elections. This suggests that only their supporters voted, voluntarily or otherwise, and everybody else stayed home. Perhaps this was a boycott, perhaps it just reflected hopelessness or indifference.)

Nonetheless, it appears that this reading masks the general trends in the country, which show a more mixed picture. First, turnout in the country as a whole was just over 50%, certainly a drop but well within international norms for these kinds of elections. Although turnout in Tehran was low, the differences between the two rounds was less than most imagined. In Tehran province, participation dropped from 39% to 24%; in the absence of official data we can speculate that turnout in the capital city was probably no more than 30% in the first round.

In fact, based on figures given by the country's leading reformist faction, reformers are a majority in over 50% of city councils; at the level of the council of provinces (ostan) the reformers and conservatives are balanced; and out of the 28 members of the supreme council of provincial councils (one from each province) reformers make up 21 members. The head of the Tehran city council, who would normally be elected as chair of the executive committee of this body, came third with only 7 votes. In Isfahan province, apart from Isfahan city, out of 463 elected councilors, 201 (43%) were reformists, 150 (32%) conservatives and 112 (25%) independents. In Golestan province, 18 cities were carried by reformists, 2 by conservatives. This is apparently the pattern elsewhere. (I have not been able to independently verify these figures but have no real reason to question them.) And in the three big cities of Tabriz, Karaj and Ahvaz reformists are in a majority. Further putting in question the interpretation of the low turnout as a no-confidence vote in the reformists, is the fact that even cities such as Isfahan (which was a relatively effective city council and which enjoyed relatively high ratings from citizens) and Qom which was dominated by conservatives in the first round, also experienced big drops in turnout.

These results suggest two observations. First, the second round of local elections cannot so directly be interpreted as a defeat for the reformists. Second, trends and events in Tehran are not necessarily representative of the country as a whole. This leaves unanswered the question of what does explain the drop in participation. This is a more complicated issue, but in brief I would point to two factors, one concerning the local councils themselves and the other relating to the movement for political reform at the national level.

It has become apparent that the high hopes and expectations associated with the creation of elected local councils in 1999 were, and remain, out of all proportion to the very narrow legal and administrative responsibilities defined for them. Efforts to improve on the current law to increase the autonomy and authority of the councils as representative local decision makers with some financial clout have not as yet borne fruit. To the contrary, the 2003 Tax Amalgamation Act – one of the most important legislations of recent years and passed by the reformist parliament – removes what little financial autonomy the local councils did have and re-centralizes financial responsibilities. Without the sense that these new institutions can make meaningful decisions on local problems they will probably lose more credibility and support. Yet perhaps the most important factor is the loss of energy of the reformist movement at the national level. It can be plausibly argued that the movement for substantial political reform started in 1996 in Iran has been defeated for the short term. The real popular energy expressed in the local council elections arose undoubtedly from the association of these new institutions with the Khatami-led reform movement and viewed them as an important element of the national reforms. Indeed Khatami counts the establishment of the councils as one of his most important achievements. But as the fortunes of reform have waned and hopes have faded people feel a general disappointment. As several people told me, what can we expect from an elected local councilor, when even the President of the country is stymied from pursuing his agenda?