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Iran's historic elections reveal new alliances and divisions

The results of Iranian parliamentary and Assembly elections will set the tone and pace for domestic and foreign policy in the next decade

The stage is set for the most important elections in the Islamic Republic’s history. According to the head of the national election headquarters, Mohammad Hossein Moghimi, 4,844 candidates are competing for 290 seats in the Majlis (parliament) elections.

In the capital city alone 1,142 candidates are competing for seats and according to the head of Tehran’s provincial election headquarters, Seyed Shahabeddin Chavoshi, more than 18 million polling cards have been issued.    

Voting began at 08:00 local time with nearly 55 million people eligible to vote. Whilst 6,333 prospective candidates for the parliamentary elections were disqualified by the Council of Guardians, nevertheless the campaigning period was lively with the outcome for many seats far from decided.

The elections unfold against a backdrop of factional strife, major disputes on economic and foreign policy and for the first time in more than quarter of a century an emerging debate on leadership succession.

The outcome of the elections will determine the direction of travel in domestic and foreign policy for the next decade. In the domestic setting, economic policy is the major area of contention between President Hassan Rouhani and his conservative and principalist rivals.

In the foreign policy sphere, the elections take place in the immediate aftermath of a historic nuclear deal and an intensifying Iranian involvement in all regional hotspots. By performing well in the Majlis elections, Rouhani supporters will hope to regain some control over regional policy from elements of the “deep” state, in particular the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). 

Moderates vs. hardliners?

In the Western media the elections have been chiefly characterised as yet another stage in the perennial struggle between so-called moderates and hardliners. 

Whilst not entirely inaccurate, this simplistic characterisation misses many of the nuances of the elections, notably the fissures in the conservative camp and the emergence of a new hybrid force in Iranian politics comprised of an amalgam of centrist, pragmatist and reformist strands.

Predictably Iran’s leader Ayatollah Khamenei used his pre-election speech in the city of Najafabad on Wednesday to urge maximum participation and warned against the false “polarisation” of elections.

By striking a supra-factional tone Ayatollah Khamenei is trying to frame the elections around issues as opposed to candidates and their respective factions. The key theme of his speech was the necessity to resist “penetration” in the political and economic spheres, particularly after the implementation of the nuclear accord.

Ayatollah Khamenei also urged officials and politicians to desist from employing the “political narrative of the enemy”, specifically to refrain from using terms such as “moderates” and “hardliners”.

Despite the guidelines set down by Ayatollah Khamenei these elections, similar to previous ones, are in part contested against a backdrop of shifting factional formations and alliances.

The biggest news centres on the conservative camp. The conservatives who dominate the outgoing parliament have been unable to form a united front and are instead divided into two camps.

The conservatives, who refer to themselves as “principalists” (Osoolgerayan), are primarily organised in the “Principalist Coalition” and the more established “Resistance Front”. To make matters more complicated a small group of principalists, led by the maverick conservative MP Ali Mottahari, have formed their own “Voice of the Nation” list in addition to appearing on reformist lists.

Despite dominating much of the political and media space the conservatives/principalists appear unable to form stable coalitions, let alone disciplined political parties, to institutionalise their grip over parliament. Inevitably this creates political and electoral space for centrist and reformist factions.

For their part the reformists are organised under the “Hope” list, formally known as the Universal Coalition of Reformists. Led by former presidential candidate Mohammad Reza Aref, the reformists have toned down their rhetoric by occupying the centre ground. 

Government supporters are formally organised under the “Alliance of Reformists and Government supporters” which is subsumed under the “Hope” list. The latter enjoys overt backing from two big political beasts, namely former presidents Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami (whose face is officially censured in the Islamic Republic).

Whilst President Rouhani has not officially endorsed any list his recent text message to voters urging them to “build the country with hope” leaves little doubt as to his preferences.  

The formal alliance of reformists, centrists and pragmatists, symbolised by Khatami, Rouhani and Rafsanjani respectively, is a major development in Iranian politics and one that promises to deliver electoral surprises.

This alliance commands advantages over the principalists/conservatives on two grounds. First it is more organisationally coherent and hence better placed to reach out to voters, in particular sophisticated voters in major urban centres. Second, by focussing mostly on economic issues, its messaging resonates deeply with a broad swathe of the electorate.

By contrast, the conservatives/principalists have been manifestly unable to translate their political capital into effective organisations. More importantly they have failed to produce a coherent narrative for the parliamentary elections.

Some have wasted time and energy on attacking the nuclear deal (which is now a foregone conclusion) and even when focussed on economic issues, the conservative/principalist camp has tended to campaign negatively (by attacking the government’s economic plans) instead of formulating an alternative economic plan.

The real question is centred on the behaviour of the electorate. The Iranian electorate is notoriously volatile and does not necessarily make a clear-cut distinction between reformists and conservatives. This is particularly the case in rural areas where voters are primarily motivated by local issues.

The conservative/principalist camp is capitalising on continuing economic difficulty to accumulate votes. Indeed, more than two years into the Rouhani presidency the Iranian economy is mired in a deep recession affecting every major socio-economic group.

Conversely, the reformist/centrist/pragmatic camp is arguing for more time to effect wide ranging economic reforms. The argument is that post-nuclear deal the prospect for economic prosperity is at hand but that sufficient time is required for opportunities to be fully identified and exploited.

The reformist-led camp is hoping to build on the momentum of the nuclear deal, and the promise of future successes, to produce electoral surprises. Whilst they can’t expect to dominate the incoming parliament, the reformists and their allies can weaken the conservatives’ grip on the legislature.

On the eve of the elections the broad reformist/centrist/pragmatic alliance received a shot in the arm when several high-profile actors and artists declared their support for the “Hope” list. This will increase the list’s chances of victory in Tehran and other major urban centres.  

Parliament vs government?

The 290-seat Iranian parliament is a formidable institution with wide-ranging legislative and supervisory powers. As far as the latter is concerned, provided it musters the will the Majlis has the power to contain and even subvert the ruling administration.

However, parliament’s legislative powers are more limited as it doesn’t have sufficient capacity or expertise to frame laws on its own. The Majlis has a small research department which is more of an advisory think-tank than a policy-making unit. 

Instead it is the executive branch of government, with its vast technical capacity and know-how, which produces laws and policies and submits them to the Majlis for ratification.

But in terms of supervisory and accountability powers the Majlis is well-placed to interrogate every aspect of government policy as well as monitor and sanction poorly performing government ministers and officials.    

The outgoing ninth Majlis (elected in March 2012) has been the most disruptive Majlis to date. For example, the outgoing Majlis issued no less than 5,000 warnings to the former Ahmadinejad administration. 

In terms of election outcomes, if the conservative/principalist factions maintain the current balance of power (or even improve on it) then the tenth Majlis can be expected to oppose, and where possible disrupt, the ambitious economic plans of the Rouhani administration.

Conversely, in the event of the reformist-led bloc managing to weaken the principalists’ grip on the legislature, then the latter will find it harder to oppose government bills or to even fully hold government ministers and other officials to account.

It is important to note that any serious parliamentary challenge to the government has to take into account the views of other stakeholders, notably the leader Ayatollah Khamenei and the IRGC. If parliamentarians are not certain of implicit backing from these powerful forces then they are unlikely to intensify tensions to breaking point. 

Of course, the reverse is also true as the government will need to fully consider the positions of other key stakeholders before pushing through with ambitious economic reforms, for instance by trying to change the country’s restrictive laws on direct foreign investment.

The most likely scenario is one where the tenth Majlis robustly queries every major economic policy but not to the point of torpedoing government plans. The only exception, as stated above, is when the government appears to be over-reaching by breaching ideological red lines or threatening parochial institutional interests.

On political liberalisation it is noteworthy that the reformist-led block has steered clear from controversial issues. The reformists contesting the parliamentary elections are not as ideologically motivated as their predecessors.

This is in part due to the experience of the repression meted out to reformists in the aftermath of the disputed June 2009 presidential elections. But the more important factor appears to be the influence applied on reformists by their centrist and pragmatist coalition partners.

To the centrists (led by Rouhani) and the pragmatists (led by Rafsanjani) political liberalisation is a non-issue. In fact both leaders, and their inner circles, are by instinct more authoritarian than the conservatives and the principalists. This is especially the case with President Rouhani who is notorious for his authoritarian streak and inability to put up with criticism.

The longstanding reformist demand for a resolution to the open-ended house arrest of opposition leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi has effectively been abandoned. This is in part due to the influence of hard power institutions like the IRGC and other security agencies whose role and interests in the elections deserves careful consideration.

The 'deep' state

Although widely used in reference to other countries, in particular Turkey, there is very little by way of academic literature or journalistic discourse on the phenomenon of the “deep” state in Iran.

The paucity of literature and reporting reflects the recent emergence of this phenomenon in Iran. For decades politics in the Islamic Republic was framed and conducted by a network of clerics and loose factional coalitions. On the whole the security services remained in the background and rarely (if ever) directly intervened in political affairs.

This changed dramatically following the disputed presidential elections of June 2009 when the security forces and intelligence organisations were called upon to suppress a formidable protest movement.

Although organisations like the IRGC and the Ministry of Intelligence had been steadily gaining power since the mid-1990s, it was only after June 2009 when they became full-fledged political stakeholders in their own right.   

Beyond dramatic turning points (like the disputed 2009 elections), the rise of the “deep” state in Iran reflects the Islamic Republic’s gradual shift away from its idiosyncratic ideological core toward embracing a more conventional authoritarian model.

In terms of the parliamentary elections, the deep state performs important roles in both investigating and in part selecting prospective candidates in addition to monitoring their performance once they have been elected.

The IRGC plays the lead role as many parliamentarians are former Revolutionary Guards and some continue to be officially affiliated with this military-security organisation.

In terms of government policies in the economic and foreign policy spheres, the IRGC will rely on its network of influence inside the Majlis to apply sufficient pressure on the government to modify questionable or inadequate bills and proposals.

The much talked about direct foreign investment is one crucial area where economic and foreign policies coincide. The Rouhani administration views foreign investment as key to reviving the economy in the short term and structurally reforming it in the longer term.

By contrast the IRGC, in tandem with a substantial chunk of the establishment, is wary of foreign investment on security, political and economic grounds.

At this juncture the deep state narrative coincides with that of the leadership of the Islamic Republic which of late has continuously warned of the dangers of “penetration” in the Iranian economy and body politic.

On political reform, the IRGC and other security agencies will be monitoring the successful “Hope” list candidates with a view to moderating their behaviour lest they revive old reformist demands or campaign on controversial issues, like releasing opposition leaders from house arrest.  

Question of leadership

The election for the Assembly of Experts (the body that selects and monitors the leadership) is happening concurrently with the parliamentary election.

Previous elections for the Assembly of Experts, which take place every eight years, were lacklustre affairs as unlike parliamentary and presidential elections there isn’t substantial public interest in the Assembly.

However, this time around the mood is very different, in part because the elections coincide with parliamentary ones, but above all because there is a strong feeling that the incoming fifth Assembly of Experts may shape the nation’s destiny.

There is an emerging debate on leadership succession, touched off last December by former president Hashemi Rafsanjani’s suggestion that the experts can choose a leadership “council” as opposed to a single leader.

Rafsanjani has led reformist and centrist efforts at gaining a credible foothold in the 88-member Assembly of Experts. But he committed a major error by convincing the grandson of the late Ayatollah Khomeini, Seyed Hassan Khomeini, to run on a reformist ticket. Khomeini was subsequently disqualified by the Council of Guardians on grounds of insufficient jurisprudential credentials.

According to the Ministry of Interior 161 candidates are competing for 88 seats in the Assembly of Experts, which suggests there won’t be any competition in some constituencies.

Despite suffering poor representation, the reformists and centrists are still hoping to influence the elections primarily by encouraging their supporters to vote against leading principalists and hardliners.

The main story in this election is the extent to which Hashemi Rafsanjani can muster public support. If he secures a striking victory then the old oligarch is well placed to influence proceedings in the Assembly, possibly in a chairman capacity.

This prospect has sufficiently rattled the hardline principalists for them to accuse Rafsanjani of running on a UK-endorsed ticket, a reference to a report on the BBC Persian service which underlined reformist intentions to sabotage the electoral prospects of leading Assembly principalists, namely Ayatollahs Janati, Yazdi and Mesbah-Yazdi.

However, unlike the Majlis, the reformist/centrist/pragmatist coalition stands little chance of securing a credible base in the Assembly of Experts. This outcome removes any substantial reformist or centrist influence on the selection process for the next leader, if indeed the fifth Assembly of Experts is called upon to exercise its duties in this regard.    

- Mahan Abedin is an analyst of Iranian politics. He is the director of the research group Dysart Consulting.  

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.  

Photo: Iranian former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani casts his ballot at a polling station in Tehran on 26 February, 2016 (AFP).

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