Friday,15 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1287, (17 - 23 March 2016)
Friday,15 December, 2017
Issue 1287, (17 - 23 March 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Decoding Iran’s elections

The revival of Iran’s reform movement is part of a Tehran backlash against the eight years of humiliation suffered under former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, writes Shahir Shahidsaless

Al-Ahram Weekly

On 26 February, 34 million out of 55 million eligible Iranian voters headed to the polls to decide the composition of two assemblies, the Assembly of Experts and the country’s parliament, or majlis.

The primary responsibilities of the majlis are legislation and oversight, and its 290 members are elected for four-year terms. The 88 members of the Assembly of Experts are elected for eight-year terms. The assembly is constitutionally tasked with the supervision and election of Iran’s supreme leader. On paper, the body has the authority to even dismiss the leader.

The elections emerged as a head-on clash between two camps. Moderates (also known as pragmatists), reformists and moderate conservatives came together and formed a coalition around a central discourse involving the “rejection of radicalism”. The group of majlis candidates that the coalition supported was styled as the “List of Hope,” while its list for the Assembly of Experts was referred to as the “Friends of Moderation”.

The de facto leader of the group was Iran’s former moderate president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. In a statement, he asked people to actively participate in the elections to prevent “the institutionalisation of political and religious extremism in society”.

The group’s rivals, the Principalists — a name they gave themselves — introduced their own list as the “Coalition of Principalists”. The coalition consisted of conservatives and hardline conservatives.

Although the main battle was between these two camps, a third group under the banner of “Independents” also entered the race. While this group could play an important role in both assemblies, there has been almost no talk about it in the Iranian and Western media. The group’s shift toward either of the two main currents could significantly strengthen its position against rivals.

In the case of the majlis, the election of its 226 members has been finalised while the remaining 64 seats have not had clear winners, meaning a second round of voting will be needed, which is not expected until April or May.

Strangely enough, different sources have reported dissimilar mapping based on the candidates’ affiliations. Sources close to the Principalists claim that the group has won a majority of the seats, while those close to the moderates claim the opposite. However, after careful examination the most reliable conclusion is that 83 seats have gone to the moderates/reformists, 78 to the Principalists, 60 to the independents, and five to religious minorities.

In any event, the overall assessments of differing sources are indicative of the fact that thus far the weight of the two camps in the majlis is as near to political balance as might be expected. But a final assessment of which camp possesses the greater power cannot be offered until the independents begin taking sides and the results of the second round are tabulated.

Regarding the Assembly of Experts, given the massive disqualification of moderate candidates by the ultra-conservative Guardian Council that vets them, the tactic that the moderates adopted was to throw their weight behind second-tier Principalist candidates, some with more moderate tendencies, to prevent more hardline figures from entering the assembly.

The approach worked. Two out of the three prominent Principalist figures who were the main target of the plan — leading hardline ayatollahs Mohamed Yazdi and Mohamed Taghi Mesbah-Yazdi — lost their seats. Moreover, the third figure, Ahmad Jannati, the secretary of the Guardian Council, was ranked last in Tehran and only narrowly kept his seat in the assembly. Rafsanjani won first place with a record 2.3 million votes.

But the main story of the elections was the outcome of the majlis elections in Tehran. This mega-city of 6.4 million eligible voters has a share of 30 seats in the majlis, and the “List of Hope” candidates scored a landslide by winning all 30 seats in an unprecedented victory. Gholam-Ali Haddad Adel, a Principalist leading figure, could not find a place better than 31st and was accordingly eliminated.



INTERPRETING THE RESULTS: Tensions between modernity and tradition are part of a century-old story within Iranian society that dates back to Iran’s Constitutional Revolution of 1905-1907. The battle is not about modernists supporting and traditionalists rejecting industrial and technological advancements. Rather, it is about a clash between two value systems, a “clash of civilisations,” one might say, within a single civilisation.

In the period before the Islamic Revolution, modernisation and Westernisation (widely viewed as an American project) collided with the Islamic traditions of Iranian society. This modernisation project occurred under the 50-year watch of the two Pahlavi dynasty kings. Finally, with the victory of the Islamic Revolution in 1979 the era of Westernisation came to an end, ushering in an era dominated by traditionalists.

But this was not the end of the battle. Tensions continued, changing in both their form and intensity from one period to the next. Tehran lay at the heart of this battle. The clashes became bloody in 2009 with the emergence of the Green Movement following the disputed presidential elections that resulted in the victory of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

He represented the country’s power elite at the time, and the backbone of the Green Movement was made up of middle- and upper-middle class urbanites, mainly from Tehran, who rejected the forceful imposition of Islamic codes. They did not raise a single economic demand during the upheavals.

As the recent elections neared, Rafsanjani and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, himself a disciple of Rafsanjani’s school of thought, began bluntly and fiercely confronting the conservatives. Rafsanjani’s attacks on the Guardian Council were unprecedented in the history of the Islamic Republic, and they aimed to attract the support of the aforementioned portion of the society, first and foremost in Tehran but also in other large cities.

Although it is true that the Principalists’ defeat emanated from the continuation of that old and unfinished dispute, this was not the only factor. The reality is that the modernists in Tehran have not forgotten the eight years of humiliation they suffered during the tenure of Ahmadinejad and the support of the Principalists for him. The straw that broke the camel’s back was the massive disqualification of the moderate/reformist candidates by the Guardian Council, which was followed by its muscle-flexing and boasting about doing so.

Accusations and counter-accusations and massive propaganda campaigns reached new heights when hardliners denounced moderates as “anglophile” and claimed that their list of candidates had been put together in the United Kingdom by government scribes working in the offices of the BBC Persian service.

Resentment in the camp of the opponents of the hardliners was manifested in their reactions on social networks, mainly Telegram, which for the first time in Iranian elections played a significant role in the mobilisation of this portion of the voters.

Jon Krosnick, a political science professor at Stanford University in the US, has conducted an ambitious study of voter attitudes in Iran spanning a 24-year period. He concludes that dislike is a much more compelling reason to cast one’s ballot than active approval. “If you dislike at least one of the candidates, then you really are motivated to participate. So, in other words, it’s really disliking a candidate that motivates turnout,” he contends.

A few days before the elections, Tabnak, one of the most popular websites in Iran, ran a poll asking, “Why am I participating in the 26 February elections?” Sixty-five per cent of those who answered responded: “To prevent my opponents from being elected.”

The spectacular victory of the moderates in the recent elections in Tehran, preventing the Principalists from gaining even one seat out of 30, is a clear manifestation of anger and dislike among the modernists serving as a strong motivating factor in their voting for the List of Hope.

The explanation that Vahid Yaminpour, an Iranian political analyst close to the hardliners, offers for the “absolute defeat” of the Principalists in Tehran is that pro-Western sentiments “are prevalent” in the city. This tendency is certainly strong in a large part of the population of Tehran and it has been the basis for the modernist election victory.

But if this factor alone was responsible for the Principalists’ defeat, it is curious that this scenario did not happen in the 2012 elections. Why did all the Principalists who were elected in 2012 in Tehran lose their seats, including Haddad Adel, who won first place in the 2012 elections?

The answer must be seen in the emergence of anger in the liberal portion of the Tehran population as a result of the high-handed position of the Principalists. In these elections, Tehran’s population has showed once again that it cannot be ignored.


The writer is a political analyst writing on Iranian domestic and foreign affairs and co-author of Iran and the United States: An Insider’s View on the Failed Past and the Road to Peace.

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