A venerable localist tradition in democratic theory – associated with thinkers such as Tocqueville, JS Mill, M.K. Gandhi – contends that people’s voluntary participation in local elections and local associations are intrinsically valuable means of enhancing the virtues and dispositions necessary for (liberal) democratic citizenship (what political scientists refer to as the individual’s sense of “political efficacy”) because it involves individuals in the running of affairs in matters of immediate concern between the four years of electing representatives to national offices. Voting in local elections and voluntary engagement in civic associations are two key dimensions of such localism that are hypothesized as conducive to building practices of self-rule. Each of these forms of action depends on institutional preconditions: free, fair and contested (local) elections; and legal provisions for free association and the establishment of voluntary civic associations independent of state control, respectively.
This paper empirically assesses these assumptions in the case of the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI), an electoral authoritarian Islamist regime, with a focus on three dimensions of potential self-rule at the subnational level. First, the Islamic Republic of Iran introduced elected local government in 1999 thus establishing the institutional framework for a measure of decentralized or local self-rule. Second, the Iranian regime has tentatively debated but failed to adopt an NGO law that would guarantee the independence of civic associations, some of which seek to partner with local electoral institutions around issues of with local matters. Third, a few proposals for a limited territorial federalism – whereby provincial government offices would be elected rather than appointed by central government – have failed to gain any traction principally due to the fear of boosting demands of regional ethnic movements that might threaten centralized unitary state control. Under conditions of authoritarianism, a free political society, and a free civil society, and even moving towards federalism (ethnic or territorial), might be seen as representing alternative sovereignties to the dominant Islamist regime that that ruled Iran since 1979.
This paper examines the ways in which these three institutional and legal dimensions for strengthening self-rule at subnational levels have been pursued and how they have been contested and achieved or blocked under the Islamic Republic. It draws on and builds on over twenty years of empirical and field research on political programs, legal rulings and administrative frameworks that impact the potential for strengthening self-rule at the subnational levels under authoritarian conditions.