Thursday,19 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1285, (3 - 9 March 2016)
Thursday,19 October, 2017
Issue 1285, (3 - 9 March 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Repercussions of the elections

Last week’s elections in Iran expressed hopes for change in the country’s politics, writes Rania Makram

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Al-Ahram Weekly

Iranians voted in two fateful elections on 26 February, one to elect 290 members of the Islamic Consultative Assembly, Iran’s parliament, and the other to select the 88 clerics who make up the Assembly of Experts.

The elections are the first since the nuclear deal with the West, the lifting of UN sanctions, and Iran’s ascension into what could be called the ranks of a world power. The polls took place amid a fierce domestic battle between the country’s conservative and reformist camps, and in the shadow of the success of the latter in defusing the nuclear crisis supported by a moderate elite led by President Hassan Rouhani.

For Iran, the elections are a consummation of Tehran’s successful nuclear deal, and they appear to have expressed Iranian aspirations for genuine change on the domestic and foreign fronts, as evidenced by the high voter turnout of 59 per cent, according to early estimates.

For the rest of the world, the Iranian polls are a potential turning point in the country’s history as a member of the international community, acting without sanctions or isolation. Many believe that reducing the hold of anti-West hardliners in parliament could improve Rouhani’s chances of opening up new political, commercial and investment horizons with the West following the conclusion of the nuclear deal, especially considering the president’s popular support.

Preliminary results show a high voter turnout and indicate that moderates and reformists have made substantial inroads in the parliament, while allies of former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani scored notable successes in the Assembly of Experts elections.

 

THE ELECTORAL LANDSCAPE: The electoral boycott announced by some political players in Iran seems not to have deterred 33 million out of an eligible 55 million voters from casting their votes in the elections, according to a spokesman for the Iranian Interior Ministry, bringing turnout to nearly 60 per cent.

Voting was extended five times to accommodate the crowds at the country’s 53,000 polling stations and 120,000 ballot boxes, half for the parliament and the other half for the Assembly of Experts.

Early results showed a clear win for the leaders of the moderate conservative wing, the list supported by Rouhani and his traditional ally Rafsanjani. Both men were elected by wide margins to the Assembly of Experts, along with Information Minister Mahmoud Alavi.

The assembly has significant influence in the Iranian system and is responsible for appointing and removing the supreme leader of the Islamic Revolution. The current head of the assembly, Mohamed Yazdi; the chair of the Guardian Council, Ahmed Jannati; and cleric Mesbah Yazdi were also elected to the assembly, all on the list supported by the conservative coalition.

The final results for the capital district, announced by the Foreign Ministry on Sunday, indicate that the pro-Rouhani Hope list took all 30 of Tehran’s seats. After 3,161,291 votes from 4,487 ballot boxes in the all-important Tehran district were tallied, the leading conservative candidate, Gholam Ali Haddad Adel, came in 31st, which put him outside the list of winning candidates.

With Tehran’s bloc of MPs typically setting the general course of parliamentary policy, the moderates’ hold over these seats means they are poised to play a prominent role in the assembly in an alliance between reformists and moderate conservatives led by Rouhani.

 

REPERCUSSIONS OF THE ELECTIONS: Statements from Iranian officials have reflected clear interest in the outcome of the elections and their impact on the country’s future. Thus far, however, no official statements have been forthcoming, as is typically the case, minimising the significance of the victory by moderate and reformist candidates.

Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei praised the high turnout and thanked the Iranian people, whom he described as “conscientious”. Member of the Assembly of Experts Ayatollah Ahmed Khatemi said, “Every vote cast by the people in the elections was tantamount to another yes in support of the Islamic regime.”

The current president of the parliament, Ali Larijani, said, “The high popular turnout in the elections increases Iran’s weight on the international stage and creates a new impression about Iran’s status.”

A tweet from former president Rafsanjani, who received the most votes in the Tehran district for the Assembly of Experts, hinted at an impending confrontation between the moderates, with their perhaps unexpected victory, and the conservative coalition, which has lost the district of Tehran at the very least.

“Anyone the people do not want must step aside,” Rafsanjani said on his Twitter account.

The elections count as a real success for Rouhani, especially in the light of the obstacles he encountered in the poll and the preliminary electoral procedures. Several moderate and reformist candidates were disqualified by the Guardian Council, which is responsible for vetting election candidates.

The elections were first and foremost a referendum on Rouhani and his policies in the wake of the nuclear deal. In the end, he came in third in the Tehran district for the Assembly of Experts with 2,238,166 votes, after veteran Rafsanjani and Mohamed Agha Emami.

But the question of how the election results will be reflected in Iran’s domestic and foreign policy remains open. Answering it requires considering the role of the two assemblies, the impact of the elections on their powers, and the consequences they may have for Iran’s domestic and foreign policy.

 

THE ISLAMIC CONSULTATIVE ASSEMBLY: Given the absence of real political parties in Iran, MPs have conventionally been divided into two major blocs: one supports a moderate, reformist agenda that would permit an improvement of Iran’s domestic conditions, while the other takes a hard line against calls for reform and openness to the outside world.

Since Tehran signed the nuclear deal with the West, a conflict between the two blocs has been brewing, with hardliners resisting attempts to reach a truce with the West and initiate domestic political reform.

Since the constitution of Iran gives the parliament the right to approve cabinet appointments and new legislation, the Iranian president needs a good working relationship with the assembly to gain endorsement of his decisions. This has not been the case for Rouhani in the current parliament, which is controlled by hardliners who do not support his presidency.

In this context, a moderate majority in the new parliament will likely provide the support the president needs, at least for his ambitious economic policy. It may also allow him to make headway in the realm of freedoms, keeping some of the promises he made during his electoral campaign, which so far have come to naught.

But the same may not be true for foreign policy. That is largely the purview of the supreme leader, who is empowered to draw the broad outlines of Iran’s foreign policy from which the executive authority, including the president, may not deviate. In turn, any flexibility on Iran’s foreign policy will be the outcome of an accommodation between the president and the supreme leader, which thus far has not been forthcoming.

In fact, the supreme leader has often signalled his dissatisfaction with the president’s performance.

 

ASSEMBLY OF EXPERTS: The Assembly of Experts exercises other powers in addition to choosing the supreme leader, but the latter prerogative is the most important now given rumours of the declining health of the current supreme leader, 76-year-old Ali Khamenei.

If Khamenei dies in the next eight years, the assembly formed by the recent elections will be tasked with choosing his successor. An assembly in which the moderate wing will play an important role, following the victory of the Rouhani-Rafsanjani alliance, thus resets the equation, reducing the window of opportunity for hardliners while widening it for the moderates.

This all indicates that the elections will have consequences for the parliament in the short term, but will have a more profound impact on the Assembly of Experts when and if it selects the next supreme leader, whose position and function allows him to control the Iranian regime as a whole.

 

The writer is a researcher at the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.

 

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