Obstacles to the Democratic Process

  September 25, 2021   Read time 2 min
Obstacles to the Democratic Process
The very convening of the second Majles, though a victory for the nationalists, was riddled with factionalism, ideological rifts, and foreign intimidation.
These pressures brought the Majles to a temporary halt by December 1911 and resulted in suspension of the constitution. The period between 1909 and 1911, and in a broader sense between 1905 and 1921, proved an unequal experiment in Iranian history. Remarkable though it was, however, it ended in tragic setbacks for it was unable not only to keep European intrusion at bay but also bar the old landed elite from return to power.
Two broad political tendencies emerged in the second Majles, each with its own support from among activists and the press, even though the revolutionary anjomans of the first Majles failed to transform fully into political parties and even to effective interest groups. The Moderates (E‘tedaliun), as they came to be known, were the largest block consisting of landowning magnates and tribal leaders among the nationalists, the younger generation of the Qajar officialdom, remnants of the Qajar elite who adjusted to the new realities, and the leaders of the Tabriz resistance, including Sattar Khan and Baqer Khan. The Social Democrats (Ejtema‘iun ‘Ammiun), or simply Democrats, as the progressives came to be known, were mostly intellectuals inspired by European liberal thought, by the Caucasian and Russian socialists, and by the Young Turks who had recently came to power in the Ottoman Empire.
In contrast to the Moderates’ gradualist approach, the Social Democrats intended to carry out a comprehensive program of reforms, the rudiments of which were already laid out in the debates of the first Majles and articulated in exile during the Minor Tyranny. Best known among the democrats was Taqizadeh, who allied with progressive elements ranging from members of the nobility with a socialist bent, Sardar As‘ad, and liberal ulama of the younger generation to some revolutionary fighters and influential journalists. The Democrats’ most urgent demands included basic land reform, the elimination of hereditary privileges, public education, use of the state apparatus for social reform, and even a call for the inclusion of women in the public arena. They shared with their moderate colleagues (with varying degrees of sincerity) calls for the unification of Iran’s armed forces and an urgent need to restore security and peace in the provinces, centralize finances, and increase state revenue through efficient taxation and the establishment of a national bank. Put simply, the party had to address the dire needs of a nearly bankrupt government that had grown in size over the previous decade.
A comprehensive program such as this was bound to encounter obstacles, especially in the area of security and finances. Most glaring, yet predictable, was a sharpening divide among the constitutionalists, which soon led to political assassinations and factional clashes. The most notable victim of political unrest was Sayyed ‘Abdollah Behbahani, a clerical icon of the constitutional struggle. In June 1910, he was assassinated by a Caucasian terrorist cell associated with Haydar Khan ‘Amu-Ughlu, who apparently had taken his cue from Taqizadeh and his radical supporters. Behbahani’s fall displayed a resistance among the Democrats toward the presence of the clerical dignitaries on the political stage. This surely contributed to demoralizing the ulama, and even the diminishing pro-constitutional wing of the Shi‘i leadership in Iran and in Iraq.