Iran Legislative Elections: Make-or-break moment for Reformists

Yasser Seddiq , Thursday 25 Feb 2016

parliamentary elections in Iran (AFP)
Iranians clergyman walk past as electoral posters for upcoming parliamentary elections the street near the Hazrat Fatimah Ma'sumeh mausoleum in Qom (AFP)

Iranian voters will head to the ballot boxes on Friday 26 February to choose representatives of both the Majlis (the parliament) and Council of Experts or (Assembly of Experts), which bears the responsibility of selecting Iran's next Supreme Leader.

Reformists announced that they will participate vigorously in these dual elections after they endured a six-year ban in the aftermath of the Green movement protests in 2009 against what was widely perceived as a "rigging of the presidential elections" that then provided Mahmoud Ahmadinejad with a new presidential term.

Reformists have stepped up their meetings in recent months in order to rearrange their ranks and have a leg in the parliament to help support moderate President Hassan Rouhani in his course towards reforms he promised during the presidential election campaign.

Iran's former president Mohammad Khatami and his predecessor Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani have urged voters to back reformists and moderates in the upcoming elections, saying a big turnout is needed to stop hard-line conservatives.

According to Iran's interior ministry, 54,915,024 voters—out of the 79-million population—are eligible to cast ballots, with 8,475,077 of them in the capital Tehran. 

Iran's head of the interior ministry's election headquarters, Mohammad Hossein Moghimi, said on Thursday that 4,844 hopefuls would contest the 290 seats, meaning 1,385 candidates have withdrawn, apparently urging voters to back the main political lists instead.

In such two-round legislative vote, successful candidates are elected in the first round if they obtain over 25 percent of votes cast. For each seat left empty, two runner-ups will compete in a second round, likely within two or three weeks.

The reformists expectedly would have no ruling bloc in the next parliament due to the exclusion of 99% of their candidates by the Guardian Council, who disqualified about 2970 out of 3000 candidates, Mohammed Mohsen Abo El-Nour, an Egyptian political researcher in the Iranian affairs, told Ahram Online.

President Hassan Rouhani (AP)
An Iranian woman walks past an electoral banner of President Hassan Rouhani who is a candidate of the Experts Assembly elections outside the former U.S. Embassy in downtown Tehran, Iran (AP)

"President Hassan Rouhani has nothing but the 'strategy of maneuvering by silence' until after the election. Then he will get together with the independent members and form the reformists' block. This block would also have no weight, but it might hinder passing major resolutions that require approval of two-thirds of the 290-seat parliament "Abo El-Nour expects.

There is a massive campaign being rolled out by Iran's reformists, encouraging the Iranian people to participate in the election.

Friday elections come six weeks after the lifting of most international sanctions on Tehran, under the July 2015 deal between Iran and major powers on the country's nuclear programme.

Rouhani's allies, who hope the nuclear deal will step up Iran's opening up to the world after years of sanctions, have come under mounting pressure in the election campaign from hardline conservatives who accuse them of links to Western powers including the United States and the United Kingdom.

Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei on Wednesday was quoted by the Iranian media, stressing the Iranian people’s need for a “strong“ parliament in the face of the United States.

In remarks reflecting a mistrust of Rouhani's rapprochement with the West, Khamenei said he was confident Iranians would vote in favour of keeping Iran's anti-Western stance.

Holly Dagres, an analyst and commentator on Middle East affairs and curator of "The Iranist" newsletter, said that despite the disqualification of many reformists, there is hope that those few who did qualify will be elected to help move post-sanction Iran forward.

"If we look at the past 2.5 years of his presidency, Rouhani's centrist agenda hasn't had as much obstruction as one would assume. The Iran deal is a perfect example of that," she said when asked about the importance of the elections for the reformists. 

Observers to the Iranian scene say a lot of the Iranians began to feel that their expectations of the upcoming elections will turn into illusions, and hope in their president's pragmatic approach will fade.  

Reformists and their supporters faced a dilemma: should they vote or boycott? When they abstained from voting in 2005, it handed the presidential election to hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on a silver platter, Dagres hinted.

"Reformists had to do it the hard way. Not participating in elections would hurt their cause. Thus, it would be better to have some control of their destiny, rather than no control at all." Dagres said.

There are no real political parties in Iran, but the members of the parliament are divided into two main blocs: one in favor of a moderate agenda and the other takes a tougher stance.

Since the signing of the nuclear deal the conflict intensified between the two blocs, where conservatives resist Rouhani’s attempts to obtain a better image broad and achieve political reform at home.

Therefore, the Parliament must approve the appointment of a new cabinet and new legislations, and President Rouhani needs to have good ties the Parliament in order to achieve what he wants.

However, these dual elections are not going to make principal changes in Iran’s major domestic and foreign policies as Dr. Majid Rafizadeh, president of the International American Council and serves on the board of Harvard International Review estimates.

Regarding the parliament, most of the reformists have been disqualified. 

"But, even if we assume that the reformist would take over the parliament (as it happened in Khatamei’s era), they will be silenced by Basij and Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) if they go out of alignment with the political, social and economic agenda of the Supreme Leader’s and senior cadre of IRGC’s." Rafizadeh told Ahram Online.

Tehran, Iran (AP)
An Iranian election campaign worker distributes electoral leaflets of reformist candidates of the upcoming parliamentary elections in downtown Tehran, Iran (AP)

Possible Scenarios

There are two possible antithetic and mutually exclusive scenarios that are usually considered by experts and analysts of Iranian politics when it comes to predicting the outcome of the upcoming elections and their political implications.

The first scenario--Conservatives will lock the electoral process and prevent any victory of the Reformist camp. Some elements reinforce this hypothesis as the filtering of reformist candidates by the Guardian Council, the surprising vetoing of Hassan Khomeini's application and the restrictions or house arrest imposed on prominent reformist leaders such as Mohammad Khatami, Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi who were put under house arrest after they urged their supporters to organize demonstrations in 2009 and 2011.

Hassan Khomeini, the grandson of the founder of Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution was barred from running for this top clerical body. 

Applying the opposite view, other analysts envision a clear victory for reformers which, they believe, will in turn strengthen the reform process initiated by Rouhani's election and the nuclear agreement of July 2015.

But what most analysts fail to consider, professor at the Canadian Forces College and Chair of the Centre for National Security Studies Dr Pierre Pahlavi says, is that both scenarios are possible simultaneously.

A third possible scenario could be an in-between one. Hard-liners and Conservatives would let the Reformists win while "framing" their victory and retaining an overall control of the process. This would allow them to strengthen internal legitimacy of the regime while accelerating the return of the Islamic republic on the international scene.

"Given the pragmatism of the Iranian leaders, the lessons they learned from their 2009 and 2011 crises and the importance they attributed to the resumption of international trade, in my opinion, would make this last scenario the most likely," Dr Pahlavi revealed.

Assembly of Experts

Iranians will go to the polls this Friday to choose members of the 88-seat Assembly of Experts. Elections to the Assembly are usually a lackluster event but this time it is not. The Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei is rumored to be in poor health and the new members will be asked to appoint a new one if vacuum happened.

The Guardian Council approved 161 candidates to contest the 88 seats of the chamber, out of 800 who applied. Members are elected by single majority vote.

The Assembly of Expert is an idle organization of 88 clerics who are basically doing nothing; a rubber stamp organization, sitting there for over 27 years and only starts working when the Supreme Leader dies, Dr. Majid Rafizadeh derisively depicted the Assembly.

"Members of this Assembly of Experts are already vetted by the Guardian Council’s twelve members who are directly or indirectly appointed by Khamenei,” Dr. Majid Rafizadeh said.

Khamenei and IRGC will, or have already chosen, the inheritor behind the closed doors, the analyst argues.

Khamenei's succession has largely remained a taboo subject, but an increasing number of senior Iranian politicians have commented on the subject in recent months, igniting the debate in private on who will succeed him.

Dr Pahlavi perceives that the new Assembly is expected to play a significant role in choosing Khamenei's successor. He sees that nervousness is "palpable” in the ranks of hardliners.

"Some, including Rafsanjani, have even suggested that Iran could be ruled by a council of leaders after Khamenei, rather than a sole supreme one. The military has rebuked such suggestions, but the mere fact that the issue is being discussed shows that an internal power struggle has begun," Pahlavi said.

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