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In the Iranian legal system, no law provides for the transparency of presidential election campaign funding. What finally brought the importance of such transparency to the fore was the revelation of a campaign finance violation by leading political figure and former IRGC senior commander Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf in the 2005 presidential election.

According to the few reports published on the events of 2005, back when Qalibaf was both chief of Greater Tehran’s police department and head of Iran’s Drug Control Headquarters, the story goes that he released one or possibly several major drug traffickers from prison in Sistan and Baluchistan Province in exchange for election campaign money. According to an interview in Shargh with Khatami administration spokesman Abdollah Ramezan Zadeh, the government became aware of the scandal and began an investigation. The investigation culminated in “The 2005 Report,” which was submitted to the administration of Khatami’s successor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Years later, in a televised debate during the 2017 presidential campaign, Hassan Rouhani said directly to Qalibaf that he, Rouhani, had done Qalibaf a “favor” by preventing his case from being brought up in Iran’s Supreme National Security Council.

After coming in fourth in the 2005 presidential vote, Qalibaf was appointed mayor of Tehran by the capital’s city council. Dozens of corruption allegations would be leveled against him during his 12 years as mayor that were never investigated, but the revelation of the 2005 violation, which seemed dangerous and extreme compared to the familiar stories of campaign donations from government agencies and semi-independent organizations, drew the attention of the press to the dubious means by which presidential candidates are funded. The issue was no longer just money generated legally through Tehran city services and the like that found its way into campaigns in an unregulated environment, but dirty money smuggled into campaigns from drug trafficking and other criminal sources.

Many candidates for the Majles and city councils, asked how they fill their campaign coffers, reply that they do it with the people’s support. This seems like a good answer on the surface, because after all, the groups that support the candidates are technically made up of the people, but the crucial question is, what do these generous donors expect from their chosen representatives that they’re willing to part with hefty sums? This is particularly relevant in the case of smaller cities, where voters have seen how candidates tend to make extravagant, impractical promises to the locals (such as turning a certain city into its own province, the granting of water usage rights on the Hirmand and Hari rivers, revitalizing Lake Urmia and the Karun River, turning certain areas into free trade zones, and other things that in many cases have nothing to do with the offices that candidates are seeking), while making specific and all too practical promises to those who provide the candidates with funds or services for their campaigns. These promises range from appointments to cushy government jobs, to permits or special legal privileges, to lucrative construction projects in the future. Campaign violations start with offering meals and cash to voters in exchange for votes and sometimes include bigger, more complicated promises such as influence in the planning of large construction projects. This phenomenon is especially apparent in the smaller cities, where the overall number of representatives is lower than in the Tehran constituency—which sends a 30-strong delegation to the Majles—because elections are won with fewer votes and there are far fewer competing representatives in the Majles to provide a counterbalance to their power and influence. In an interview with Tasnim, Majles representative for Mahallat Alireza Salimi described some of these violations, which he said had been detailed in a report for the commission responsible for implementing Article 90 of the Islamic Republic’s Constitution (which addresses how to process complaints or disputes related to the Majles): “They have a product worth five million tomans that they sell for much less, and then the other party performs some services in exchange for the difference in the price, and they have an agreement that the difference will be given to the campaign” or “signing contracts with large contracting holding companies for grand projects and then they specify that a percentage of the amount in the contract should be paid to the person running in the elections.”

These discussions eventually led the government to attempt to codify election campaign finance standards in the law, especially after Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei introduced general election policies as guidelines for legislation in 2018. Article 4 of those guidelines refers to “determining the limit and types of authorized and unauthorized electoral expenses and resources, transparency of election funds and resources of candidates and political organizations, notification of the relevant authorities, exercising close supervision over the process, and determining the manner of responding to financial violations.”

That same year, the Rouhani administration sent a bill to the Majles entitled “Comprehensive Elections Law.” A bill focused on parliamentary campaigns, entitled Transparency, Supervision, and Financing of Majles Election Activities, was finally passed by the Majles on January 26, 2020; it was approved by the Guardian Council three days later and formally enacted into law by the Rouhani administration on February 4, just two and a half weeks before the elections for the 11th Majles. The full “Comprehensive Elections Law” bill, encompassing financial transparency for presidential elections, has never been brought to the floor and, with Rouhani’s tenure near its end, it seems unlikely that the Majles will take it up any time soon. The current presidential campaign is thus effectively free from any troublesome financial constraints.

Transparency and Supervision Law

The Transparency, Supervision, and Financing of Majles Election Activities law clarifies the distribution of campaign funds and resources that candidates are allowed to use and specifies the individuals and organizations that are eligible to contribute to candidates. The law declares that the only legal sources of campaign funding are the candidates’ personal wealth and assets, help from political parties or groups, help from Iranian individuals, and public funds allocated for election campaigns. According to the law, assistance from legal entities not affiliated with political parties or groups is prohibited. Candidates, parties, and political groups are also forbidden from receiving direct assistance, financial or otherwise, from foreigners or convicted criminals.

Additionally, to further increase transparency, all payments and receipts must occur with bank documents or electronically with account numbers as specified in the law, and the maximum funds allowed to each candidate correspond to population density, geographical area, and the number of seats allocated to their respective electoral districts, all with the Ministry of Interior’s approval and the confirmation of the Central Election Supervisory Committee.

According to the law, all Majles candidates must open separate bank accounts specifically for any transfer or withdrawal of funds related to election campaign costs. The bank account numbers must be public and each candidate must appoint and present a chosen “financial representative” to the Ministry of Interior and their local governorships and district offices. Article 9 dictates that candidates must record all expenses related to election activities, advertising funds, sources for all funds, and the amount of cash and non-cash assistance received in a transparent way.

While the law was nominally introduced for the 11th Majles elections—though it was enacted long after the campaigns were underway—there is no information available as to exactly how it was implemented, and it appears that the executive branch had little interest in enforcing it.

Criticism and Shortcomings

Although the new law, assuming it is ever enforced, appears to be a decent attempt to institute transparency and oversight in the campaign-funding process, and of course it is better to have such a law than not, critics believe it cannot prevent many violations because of their untraceable nature. Individual votes, for example, are often bought with canned fish or a meal; in some rural areas, illiterate voters are given cash and rides to polling stations to vote for a given candidate. Also casting doubt on the efficacy of the law is the absence of formal, enduring political parties. Critics say this creates an atmosphere of political ambiguity and can hamper transparency efforts.

The mere existence of such a law, of course, can hardly guarantee the elimination of all violations; the point rather is to make violations more difficult and establish some consequences for them. Another issue with the law is its failure to consider the complexities of the systemic corruption of the institutions involved in elections and their numerous violations in the past. Many such violations have come to light in recent years and have even been widely reported in the press. One example was the “list-selling” by self-identified reformist groups in the 11th Majles elections and the 5th Tehran City Council elections in 2020, in which candidates literally bought spots on the list of reformist nominees. News of the list-selling quickly spread around the country; it would be formally acknowledged for the first time in an interview with Ana News in which reformist ex-representative Elaheh Kulaei replied to a question about whether certain individuals had paid to get on the reformist candidate list: “No one can reject or deny the existence of such a mechanism in any elections.” Later, Tehran City Council member Fatemeh Daneshvar announced that she had been offered a spot on the list for 2 billion tomans (approximately $475,000), and when she did not pay up, was cast aside. Other reformist politicians denied the veracity of these stories, but rumors circulated that spots on the reformist list had been sold to candidates in the Majles, Tehran City Council, and Isfahan City Council elections—as recently as early last year, the presumption was that whoever was on the reformist list would win, so the focus was on selling spots to the highest bidder rather than taking steps to address voters’ demands for fair, fully accountable elections. This raises a fundamental question: What are people getting out of being elected as representatives or council members—to say nothing of president—if they’re willing to pay for a shot at it?

Another violation that stoked controversy was a series of payments by Mohamad Reza Rahimi, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s first vice president, to principlist (right-wing) Majles representatives to help them with campaign advertising. Although Rahimi was eventually found guilty of a number of other, unrelated violations and sentenced to five years in prison, he was never found liable for the illegal campaign payments. According to article 2 of the law on intensification of penalties for perpetrators of bribery, embezzlement, and fraud, the principals of any legal entity that earns money in an illegal way will be considered criminally liable and sentenced to between three months and two years in prison or a fine double the amount of the illegally obtained funds, but none of the representatives alleged to have received such “assistance” were called in for questioning, and the issue was totally ignored.

Reports of the purchase of Majles seats from electoral institutions and ministry positions from presidential aspirants are so widespread that, despite the public disclosure of such practices by candidates and Islamic Republic officials, they’re ignored by most lawmakers. Rumors that Rouhani couldn’t fire certain ministers due to hefty payments made to his campaign for advertising went nowhere in the press due to a lack of hard evidence, but Ramin Mehmanparast, a former spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and a 2021 presidential hopeful rejected by the Guardian Council, said in an April interview with Fars News that these kinds of deals between presidential candidates and wealthy donors were taking place over ministry positions, and that certain ministries, such as Industries and Mines, are more “traded on” than others and fetch higher prices.

Another corruption case involving the Guardian Council centers on sales of its coveted seal of candidate approval. The case was first exposed by Mahmoud Sadeghi, a reformist representative in the 10th Majles, in a 2018 tweet addressed to Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, chairman of both the council and the Assembly of Experts, which appoints the supreme leader. Sadeghi later said he could provide evidence to the Guardian Council. He cited a statement from a disqualified Majles candidate who said he was told to pay 600 million tomans ($142,500) to receive his approval. Sadeghi even named the location where appointments were made with would-be candidates to make the trades. In addition to Sadeghi, many other individuals, including rejected candidates such as Akbar A’lami, claim that supervisory boards play the role of intermediary between the Guardian Council and the candidates and that the supervisory boards rely on their relationship with the council in various ways, including through money and influence to confirm or reject candidates. Although the Guardian Council repudiated all the claims, in January 2020 it was announced that members of a group involved in the selling of candidate approvals had been arrested; the denials that there was any connection to the Guardian Council continued.

Such negligence and even wilful ignorance on the part of lawmakers of the systemic, institutional corruption in legal institutions and groups involved in the elections, which demonstrates a kind of deliberate negligence in the governing process, has rendered the new and limited election law ineffectual to such an extent that Majles representatives themselves have expressed skepticism about it.

✶ This post is also available in: فارسی (Persian)

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