The Political Spectacle of Iranian Elections

A coalition of Reformist/Moderate candidates made strong gains in Iran’s recent parliamentary election even though the political landscape is still largely conservative. The result will likely support President Hassan Rouhani’s policies as he presses for further economic, but not political, reforms.

The irrepressible vitality of Iranians is infectious. There is a clear change in mood among the country’s public, perhaps more relief than the sense of elation pervading many overseas observers but then political scepticism, even cynicism is deeply rooted. Some would argue that this is well justified, in an Iranian political public badly bruised by experience. This was above all an act of resistance – coherently handled and delivered with aplomb. With its choice limited to ‘bad’ and ‘worse’, the electorate emphatically voted for ‘bad’, sending the strongest signal since at least 2009 that the idea of reform, and the relatively liberal ideas that shape it, is alive, if not necessarily well. There was to be sure some anxiety about the turnout. The authorities had done their best to dampen enthusiasm, through rigorous, if somewhat inconsistent, vetting of candidates, as well as tight control over the parameters of the campaign itself – limited (some might argue refreshingly) to a single week, but made all the more difficult for the ‘moderate’ coalition by the fact that its candidates were neither confirmed till very late in the day, nor very well known to the public. Moreover, some who were known were relatively late converts to ‘moderation’, a fact that was abundantly clear in the preferred ‘moderate’ list for Tehran for the Assembly of Experts. This list included among its luminaries Mohammad Reyshahri, a former intelligence minister not known for his appreciation of human rights

The decision to broaden the coalition (listed under ‘Hope’ for the Majlis, and the ‘People’s Experts’ for the Assembly) was a necessity born of circumstance. It nonetheless provided a platform for people to register their antipathy against the hard-line Principle-ists (at least those who chose to run under the label) and if the comments of Mohammad Reza Aref (the leader of the remaining rump of reformists) are anything to go by, this strategy was the brainchild of former Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani. It was ‘project fear’ writ large – people may not know who they were voting for but they certainly knew what they were voting against – and it worked. But the mobilisation also depended on the vital and timely input of the one politician in Iran whose reputation has only grown as his harassment by the authorities continues: former President Mohammad Khatami.

Despite being barred from any media representation, supporters took to partial representation (basically his hands) in publicity material while he took to social media to emphatically call for blanket votes for the specified ‘lists’, according to an article published on 2 March in the Financial Times. As it happens, turnout was not dramatic – 50 per cent in Tehran and 60 per cent throughout the country – but it was enough to send the required message. Tehran in particular proved a sweeping success for the coalition with the leader of the Principle-its faction, Gholamali Hadad Adel, dropping to a lowly 31st on the list (Tehran has thirty seats), while in the assembly election, secretary of the Guardian Council and author of much of the vetting, Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati struggled to retain his place: he came 16th and therefore secured the last available place for Tehran. People power, long subdued, had come alive.

It says something about Iranian elections however: the absence of clear political parties and the propensity of ‘lists’ all of which had shared candidates (for example the People’s Experts list shared no fewer than eight candidates with the hard-line list of Ayatollah Jannati) means that just who won this election remains a matter of some debate. Few doubt that the hard-line Principle-ists lost and that the ‘Reformists’ won a moral victory, but beyond that the precise balance of power is proving difficult to discern. Quite apart from joint lists and the fact that ‘moderate’ Principle-ists appeared to have made common cause with ‘hard-line’ reformists, this parliament witnessed the election of an unusually high number of independents with no apparent affiliation and to which each side has laid claim. Given the rigorous nature of the vetting, it is hard to see how they can be regarded as reformists. Time will tell which way they will fall. Then there are the approximately 20 per cent of seats that will be decided in the run-off, and many of these are seen as leaning towards the Principle-ists. The practical reality of this highly controlled election is of a parliament still dominated by Principle-ists of one hue or another with an overall institutional balance effectively engineered to the right of the political spectrum. 

For President Hassan Rouhani, this is in many ways an excellent result. A divided parliament of vocal minorities – albeit leaning to the right – provides as good a platform as he might have expected to pursue economic reforms while deferring any serious political reform. None of this will be smooth sailing – the pressure will now be on to deliver on his many economic promises. But he can also count on the continued support of the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, who despite commentary to the contrary, is no doubt quietly satisfied with his president. The details of the result may not be entirely to his liking but the pre-election vetting had ensured the results would be confined within strict parameters and even if this was a tactical setback, it was a strategic gain. For Khamenei, the Rouhani administration has not only stabilised Iran’s foreign relations, it has by all accounts achieved something far sweeter: a well-managed, credible, election that may at last lay the ghosts of 2009 to rest.


Ali Ansari

Senior Associate Fellow

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