In the wake of the wholesale disqualification of 2,500 pro-reform candidates, the Feb. 20 parliamentary elections in Iran yielded predictable results: conservative forces gained the control of the Majlis, or national parliament.

The barring of the pro-reform candidates by Iran’s ultra-conservative and unelected Guardian Council, which took place in January, effectively cleared the way for the creation of a hand-picked parliament more closely aligned with the country’s reactionary rulers.

As of the vote tally on Feb. 22, of the 198 candidates who had won parliamentary seats, 133 were conservative and 65 were reformist or independent. Only one woman was elected. The outgoing legislature included 11 women.

Behzad Nabavy, the deputy speaker of the parliament, characterized the election as a “silent coup d’etat,” while by contrast the reactionary Supreme Religious Leader Ayatollah Khamenei hailed the election a victory, claiming it was “completely free and fair.”

In most big cities the turnout was low, particularly among youth. In Tehran, the capital and the political heart of the country, less than 30 percent of the electorate cast their vote. Many voters turned in blank ballots in protest. All progressive and democratic forces, including the Tudeh Party, had called for a boycott of the election, calling it a sham.

A day before the election, two of the main pro-reform newspapers were gagged and closed. There were also reports of electoral fraud committed by right-wing elements, especially in villages and remote areas.

Earlier this month the Tudeh Party said a right-wing offensive was underway, the purpose of which was “to depose (President Mohammad) Khatami’s government or force it into complete and unconditional cooperation.” The statement called on Khatami to oppose the “illegal” election. Khatami, however, remained consistent in upholding the principle of the absolute rule of the supreme religious leader and did not denounce the elections.

The regaining of the control of parliament is likely to be followed by the retaking of the executive power and presidency by the right-wing forces.

The election was a defining moment for the country’s reform process, signaling the end of a period that started with Khatami’s election in 1997. It exposes the failure of the misguided strategy of attempting to reform a despotic regime while retaining its key undemocratic structures.

During the last six years the governing pro-reform forces have consciously discouraged mass, popular involvement in the reform struggle, relying instead on striking deals with the ultra-conservatives behind the scenes. This has left Khatami’s government and pro-reform elements relatively isolated and vulnerable to attack from the right.

Many people see the election results as the inevitable outcome of the failure of the government to deliver on its promise of true reform, and the continuing dire economic straits facing Iran’s working people. Popular dissatisfaction with the government’s track record, combined with the last month’s disqualification of the majority of the reformist candidates by the Guardian Council, were key factors behind the recent sit-in protest by members of parliament.

The boycotting of the election by the main pro-reform parties such as Mosharekat and Mojahedin Engelab Eslami (the majority parties in the outgoing parliament), in direct defiance of the supreme religious leader, is a significant event. It shows that sections of the reformists have recognized the futility of their strategy and tactics, i.e., appeasement of the ruling reactionaries headed by Khamenei.

The transformation of an authoritarian Islamic regime without fundamentally overhauling its value systems and laws of operation has proven to be a delusion. Without the direct support and mobilization of broad social forces it is impossible to confront a dictatorial regime.

The pro-reform forces have suffered a massive setback, which will undoubtedly be followed by further repression by the reactionaries. However, with the ending of one historical stage, which started with Khatami’s election, a new phase in the struggle for democracy begins.

Undoubtedly the popular movement against dictatorship has learned a lot from this experience and it will build on the immense unpopularity of the clerical regime. The process of ending the rule of theocracy in Iran has already started.

Nima Kamran is a correspondent from the Tudeh Party of Iran and can be reached at