Iran’s elections: a bid to dilute hardliners

What has emerged in the run-up to the elections is an alignment between the reformists, centrists and some moderate conservatives to push back against a major victory by hardliners who were empowered under former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

On Friday Iran will hold elections for its Parliament and Assembly of Experts. This will mark the first time Iranians go to the polls since the start of President Hassan Rouhani’s tenure in 2013. Both the process surrounding these elections and its outcome serve as a litmus test for the balance that can be expected amongst Iran’s power centres. What has emerged in the run-up to these elections is an alignment between the reformists, centrists and some moderate conservatives to push back against a major victory by hardliners who were empowered under former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The primary objective of this new alignment is not to deliver sweeping changes to Iranian domestic or foreign policies. Rather it is a bid to dilute the existing hardline grip on power in order to allow more space for the Rouhani administration to advance its economic priorities and at best make incremental progress on political reforms. 

Candidates are permitted one week of formal campaigning in the run-up to elections, which will be held on 26 February to elect two sets of representatives:

(i)                  Assembly of Experts (Majles-e Khobregan): The 88-member body will be elected for a period of eight years, and charged with selecting and supervising the Supreme Leader. There are 31 provinces, with the number of seats proportionate to the size of the provincial population. A total of 161 candidates have been approved to stand in these elections. The process involves only one round of voting and does not require a majority vote. The overall political standing of the Assembly could be an important game changer for Iran’s future because it is likely that within its tenure the body and the power factions that influence its representative will choose a replacement for the aging Ayatollah Khamenei.

(i)                  Parliament (Majles): 290 representatives (allocated across 207 constituencies) will be elected for a period of four years. Of these, 285 will be directly elected, with the remainder seats reserved for minority groups (Jews, Assyrian, Zoroastrians and Christians). A total of 6,229 candidates have been approved to stand. The election process involves two rounds of voting and final results will likely become clear in early March. The current parliament opened in May 2012, during Ahmadinejad’s presidency, and unsurprisingly the hardline conservative factions hold majority power within this system. This parliament has consistently attempted to undermine Rouhani by blocking his domestic policies and challenging his foreign policy initiatives. If the next elections result in a weakening of the radical factions, Rouhani’s domestic economic policies could be enforced more swiftly than before.

There has been a unanimous push across the Iranian leadership to encourage a high voter turnout. It is predicted that the numbers of eligible voters in 2016 is approximately 54.9 million with a turnout of roughly 65 percent. The Supreme Leader has publically urged even those who do not believe in the Islamic Republic to participate. For Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, high election turnouts have affirmed the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic, and by extension his role as supreme leader. Hardliners have also called for votes to be cast in large numbers to defeat the “seditionists” linked to the 2009 Green Movement, and in objection to Rouhani’s policies that are perceived to fly in the face of core revolutionary values.

Meanwhile, the reformists and moderate conservatives have backed Rouhani and called on their supporters to vote in an effort to weaken hardliners. There is concern within these camps that many who backed Rouhani in 2013 will refrain from voting given dissatisfaction at the rate of political progress. But this weekend, former President Mohammad Khatami, one of the founders of the reformist movement under the Islamic Republic, encouraged votes in favour of candidates that he has named on his so-called “list of hope”. Former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani has noted that upcoming elections are “a valuable opportunity to prevent institutionalisation of political radicalism and religious extremism in society”.

In January, the Guardian Council, the unelected body charged with vetting candidates, barred 99 percent of the 3,000 reformist candidates seeking to run for parliament. In a controversial move, this body also disqualified the nomination of Hassan Khomeini from the Assembly of Experts. Khomeini, the 43-year-old cleric and grandson of the Islamic Republic’s founding Supreme Leader has close ties to Iran’s centrist and reformist camps and has been pitched as a contender for becoming Iran’s next Supreme Leader. The mass disqualification was expected given the unprecedented numbers that registered in the first place (roughly 12,000 candidates for parliament, and 800 for the Assembly of Experts). In part, these high numbers have been attributed to a tactic by the moderates and reformists to put forward names of relatively unfamiliar candidates that have a “clean slate” when it comes to their involvement in the 2009 Green Movement. However, the extent and reach of the disqualifications left many sceptical that these elections could have even nominal impact on the trajectory of Iranian politics.

The Supreme Leader signalled his preference to marginalise the reformists from these elections through the final cut of candidates approved by the Guardian Council, which is directly answerable to him. After the Guardian Council was criticised by reformists, Rouhani and Rafsanjani, the Supreme Leader came out in support of the decisions noting that those who do not believe in the Islamic Republic should not run for office. Given the vetting process, many speculate that the Supreme Leader prefers to maintain the status quo in terms of the power balance amongst Iranian factions, with hardliners who remain fervently loyal to the Supreme Leader, continuing to dominate.

While Rouhani vocally pushed back against the scale of the disqualifications and engaged in a delicate bartering process with the Guardian Council this had little impact on reversing the original decisions. Out of the 1,500 parliamentary nominees who were successful at appealing against their ban, very few of them fall into the reformist camp. Despite these setbacks, in the final week of campaigning, the reformists have cast their net over pro-government nominees, inclusive of moderate conservatives such as Ali Motahari, that provide the best chance of countering the hardliners.

In the run-up to these elections, Rouhani and his backers have opted to focus on building consensus around a centrist moderate bloc. Instead of pushing for a swing to the reformist positions on the left of Iran’s political spectrum, this strategy has opted to peel conservative parliamentarians away from the right wing/hardline factions to the centre. A “trio of founding fathers” of the Islamic Republic, notably Rouhani, Rafsanjani and Hassan Khomeini targeted the Assembly of Experts, aimed at pushing through greater numbers of nominees who can be influenced by the moderates in future decisions, and to counter hardline figures like Ahmad Jannati and Mohammad Taghi Mesbah-Yazdi. In preparation, Rafsanjani has already introduced his proposal for a future leadership council to fulfil the constitutional duties of the supreme leader so as to create more checks within the Iranian system.

The real balance to look out for in these elections is between the pragmatic conservatives and the hardliners, rather than the numbers of reformist candidates against the rest. The disqualifications do not have a great impact on the first equation. It seems that Rouhani’s strategy for the upcoming elections is less to do with boosting the position of reformists, and more focused on diluting the powerbase of the hardliners by persuading a greater number of conservatives to move towards a more pragmatic centrist position. 

The outcome of the elections will be a decent indicator of how successfully Rouhani manages Iran’s competing stakeholders going forward. If the hardline camp retains its position, they are likely to work with their brethren in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) to double down on securitisation of Iranian domestic politics and narrow engagement with the West. This outcome does not necessarily exclude Rouhani from pursuing a simultaneous economic opening, though the likelihood of its success is reduced. However, if the elections weaken the hardline stronghold, it provides Rouhani with greater flexibility to advance his priorities. To do so, Rouhani is likely to seek the support of, and cooperate with the pragmatic decision-makers in the IRGC and the conservative faction. Given his background in the security establishment, these power blocs place trust in Rouhani and view him as a president that will work within the contours of the Islamic Republic rather than radically challenging them like Khatami or Ahmadinejad. In the same manner, and as seen during the nuclear negotiations, building consensus across Iran’s leadership is likely to remain the cornerstone of Rouhani’s domestic and foreign policies.             

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Deputy Director, Middle East and North Africa programme
Senior Policy Fellow

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