Sunday,15 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1283, (18 - 24 February 2016)
Sunday,15 July, 2018
Issue 1283, (18 - 24 February 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Iran’s key upcoming elections

Reformists and hardliners face off ahead of Iranian parliamentary elections, seen as a lightning rod of public feeling not only on the nuclear deal, but the political system itself, writes Rania Makram

Al-Ahram Weekly

On 26 February, Iranians will head to the polls to elect two government bodies, the Assembly of Experts (the fifth in the history of the Islamic Republic) and the Islamic Consultative Assembly, or parliament (the tenth legislative assembly since the 1979 revolution).

The elections come at a critical time for the main camps in the Iranian political arena — reformists and hardliners. Tehran has signed the historic nuclear accord with the P5+1, ending the years-long crisis with the West. This accomplishment is considered a victory for the moderate trend, which is close to the reformists and to which the current president, Hassan Rouhani, belongs.

Rouhani faces heavy opposition from conservatives and hardliners who maintain that the importance of the agreement is overblown and accuse those who negotiated it of forfeiting Iranian rights for the sake of illusory gains. Vatan-e Emrooz (Homeland Today), a hardliner mouthpiece, charged that the nuclear accord “buried the Iranian accomplishment in concrete”. The newspaper was referring to the government’s removal of the core of the Arak heavy-water nuclear reactor and filling it with cement, in fulfilment of a key obligation under the nuclear agreement.

The elections and their results will have a significant impact in shaping the future of the Iranian political system. The forthcoming Assembly of Experts, which is elected for an eight-year term, will most likely be responsible for choosing the successor to current Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The legislative elections will also constitute a test of the popularity of President Rouhani a year before the next round of presidential elections.

These upcoming polls will be far from an ordinary exercise in distributing roles and functions in a monolithic order. The campaigns are already developing into a fierce, bone-crushing contest between the reformist and hardliner camps.

Teeth are being bared and the hardliners who are close to those who hold the keys of power have managed to filter out and eliminate more then 90 per cent of the reformist candidates by means of the Guardian Council, which has the power to approve or reject potential candidates for government office. The practice stirred an outcry and numerous reformist candidates appealed and were ultimately able to receive the council’s stamp of approval to run in the elections.


COMPETITIVE CLIMATE: The Guardian Council, an appointed 12-member body that is normally responsible for ensuring that the laws passed by the legislature are compatible with the criteria of Islam and the constitution, screens candidates for the Islamic Consultative Assembly in accordance with its interpretation of these criteria.

For the forthcoming round, the Guardian Council originally approved 4,700 out of 12,312 applicants to contest parliament’s 290 seats during the candidate registration period, which was from 17 to 23 December. Of the thousands disqualified, 99 per cent were reformists. On appeal, the council was forced to certify the eligibility of an additional 1,400 candidates, many of them reformists, bringing the total number of candidates up to 6,100.

These now have a very brief period — from 18 to 24 February — to campaign. According to the Iranian Interior Ministry spokesman, Hossein-Ali Amiri, more than 580 of the parliamentary candidates are women.

The Guardian Council also approved 166 out of 801 applicants to run for the 88-seat Assembly of Experts. It is noteworthy that the vigilant council barred Hassan Khomeini, grandson of the founding father of the Iranian republic, from running for the Assembly of Experts. The council cited a technicality as the reason for disqualifying him, but it is well known that Hassan Khomeini is close to reformist circles.

Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has shown a particularly keen interest in this round of elections. In a recent speech he urged Iranians to report to the polls and stressed the need for then to elect “suitable persons” for the Assembly of Experts, a body of clerics responsible for appointing or dismissing the supreme leader.

The statement was interpreted as alluding to the possibility that he could die during the assembly’s next eight-year term. Khamenei is currently 76 years old. He also stressed that opponents to the “values of religious authority” would not be allowed to run for parliament. The remark is an indication of the seething conflict between the camp of the supreme leader and his supporters and the liberal reformist camp that seeks to ease the restrictions of the Iranian system of vilayat-e faqih, or rule by Islamic clerics.

President Rouhani, by contrast, voiced his disapproval of the excesses of the Guardian Council. “The preliminary reports that have reached me did not please me at all. I will use all my authorities to protect the rights of candidates,” he said. The remark was interpreted as an open challenge to the hardliners and described by Vatan-e Emrooz as “an unprecedented disdain for the law”.

The electoral prospects of moderates and reformists are also hampered by other government bodies. Security agencies have prohibited a number of reformist political activities while the state-run media, controlled by conservative hardliners, has been waging a relentless campaign against the reformist trend and figures.

In fact, the powerful Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB), which is run by conservative hardliners, banned the transmission of an interview with Foreign Minister Javad Zarif (a moderate) and interrupted the live transmission of a speech by President Rouhani in May 2014, during the fourth communications and information technology fair. Rouhani had criticised problems with the Internet and the poor quality of Internet services offered to the Iranian public.

Evidently undaunted by the disqualifications and the restrictions on their freedom of movement, the reformists funded a new political party: the Call of Iranians. Its articles of association call for “the need to participate in the political process and to confront marginalisation and overcome exclusion” while it simultaneously pledges “commitment to the principles of the Iranian revolution and the Iranian constitution” and “faith in vilayat-e faqih”.

The party is an attempt to rally reformist ranks and encourage them to turn out to vote, as opposed to boycotting the polls, as has occurred in past elections. It also seeks to establish the reformists’ patriotic and religious credentials, and thus counter the anti-reformist propaganda supported by the conservatives and hardliners.

While the conservative-reformist contest generally dominates the climate in Iranian electoral rounds, other political forces are present, if less effective and influential, in the Iranian political arena,. They include political parties and movements representing Iran’s various ethnic groups. Often these call for a boycott of the elections and refuse to recognise their results on the grounds of unequal opportunity.

Not least of these is the Kurdistan Independent Party, which called on Kurdish citizens of Iran to boycott the elections, which it described as a “farce” because the Guardian Council also disqualified most independent candidates. The party also called on “all other oppressed peoples and nationalities in Iran” to boycott the polls and not lend them legitimacy by casting a vote.


RAMIFICATIONS: The Assembly of Experts and the Islamic Consultative Assembly elections, which are being held simultaneously for the first time, will reflect the impact among the general public of the nuclear agreement and the lifting of economic sanctions. In part because of these developments, they will all also reflect the increasingly heated rivalry between conservatives and reformists.

While the former are notching up their invectives, calling reformists “tools of the West”, “agents for Western penetration” and the like, reformists are doing their best to take advantage of the new spirit of optimism made possible by the nuclear agreement and the lifting of sanctions to garner as many seats as possible in both bodies.

The elections are unlikely to impact Iranian foreign policy, regionally or internationally, as the outlines of Tehran’s policies abroad are essentially fixed and immutable. However, the results of the polls may affect the tenor of Iranian rhetoric abroad, and the extent of flexibility or rigidity within the established parameters set by the supreme leader and not the executive branch headed by President Rouhani.

As important as the results of the polls will be, the voter turnout rate will also be a crucial indicator. A low voter turnout would not reflect well on the whole Iranian political system, inclusive of its conservative-reformist spectrum. The 26 February polls will be not just a test of the policies of the government, but a test of the popularity of the very system of government.


This month’s parliamentary and Assembly of Experts elections in Iran could have major repercussions for the country’s foreign policy and government, writes Camelia Entekhabifard


It’s too early for the public in Iran to decide among the many candidates whose names have been printed on different coloured paper lists for the upcoming elections, or even to know who they are and which parties are supporting them.

Many of the best-known candidates have been disqualified from running in the two major elections in Iran scheduled for 26 February. However, the qualified candidates have been slowly revealing their real identities by appearing on different groups’ and supporters’ lists.

A merger between semi-reformer and semi-moderate candidates has been one of the most significant moves against the hardliners who are planning to take over the country’s next parliament.

And when it comes to the Assembly of Experts elections, it seems that the lists bearing pictures of President Hassan Rouhani and former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani are the most popular ones.

The Assembly of Experts is entitled to choose the country’s supreme leader and monitor his leadership. Assembly elections are held every eight years. It may be that this one will elect the country’s next supreme leader, due to rumours of the sickness of the current incumbent, Ayatollah Khamenei.

A parliament that can work in harmony with the current government, which has another two years to go before the next presidential elections, will also give the public confidence in ongoing stability and economic reforms.

But for many, the Assembly of Experts election is more important than the parliamentary one, since it will decide who may lead Iran after Khamenei.

People do not know much about individual candidates, but they know the differences between the parties. The “Khobregan Mardom” or “Assembly of the People” list thus far looks the more popular.

The grandson of the Islamic Revolution’s founder, Hassan Khomeini, has been banned from running in the Assembly elections as a signal that the Assembly does not need reform of its ultra-conservative composition.

But having Rafsanjani as a candidate has made the elections attractive and is likely to build public support for them. They are many expectations about the elections that go beyond the economy and social reforms. Iranians are hoping to see relations between Iran and the US improve, based on recent diplomatic achievements and as a way of empowering Iran.

The implementation of the nuclear deal and the recent prisoner swap raised hopes that Rouhani will be able to continue such work on the international scene.

Since the US presidential elections will take place next year, the elections in Iran are also especially important. They could indicate what policies will be pursued in the next parliament when it comes to foreign policy and supporting the current government.

For the majority of Iranians, the diplomacy pursued by the moderate government of Rouhani with US President Barack Obama was highly welcome, and they support its continuation.

However, an ultra-conservative parliament in Iran could ruin these achievements if it is faced with a Republican president in the US who may want to challenge the nuclear deal with Tehran.

Hopes for improving relations, seen as possible if a Democrat comes to power in the US and if the parliament and the next supreme leader in Iran stay on the same path, have also led to excitement in Iran.

The hostility of former Republican president George W Bush towards the Islamic Republic empowered Iran’s conservatives, troubled reformists and journalists, and helped to dismantle then-President Mohamed Khatami’s government.

Iranians see conservative Republicans in the US in a similar way to extremists in Iran, and believe the Republicans may shatter current achievements if they take power in the US in the same way that could happen if the conservatives come to power in Iran.

The Republican presidential candidates in the US say they are against the nuclear deal with the conservatives in Iran. If the next US president is a Republican, this will also have an impact on the next presidential elections in Iran unless the new parliament supports the Iranian president.

Animosity against the US is what the conservatives could pursue if they take control of the Iranian parliament in this month’s elections, throwing stones into Rouhani’s path as he implements the nuclear deal during the last two years of his presidency.

Any frustration of the current moderate government will give the hardliners a chance to seize power again at the next presidential elections. No matter who is the next president in the US — Republican or Democrat —it is important that the current elections in Iran build enough public support for the moderates.

President Rouhani needs to secure his support base in the next parliament in order to face the next president in the US, and as he heads towards his own possible re-election.

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