Elections in an illiberal country like Iran are not merely a political show, since the outcome serves as a test for the balance among the country’s power centres.
On Friday, February 26, Iranians went to the polls to elect members of the Islamic Consultative Assembly (ICA). These elections are part of a general process that also elects the 88 members of the Assembly of Experts (Assembly). This was the first time since 1979 that the two political bodies were elected simultaneously.
The Assembly is in charge of selecting the next Supreme Leader. Given the poor health of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the new Assembly, elected for an eight-year term, is likely to pick his successor. These were the first polls for Iranians since President Hassan Rouhani’s tenure began in 2013 and the landmark nuclear agreement in July 2015. Although Rouhani and his cabinet showed their political power by securing the deal and getting the sanctions reduced, these elections were a confrontation between Rouhani’s achievements and the strategies and agenda of Iran’s ultra-conservatives and hardliners.
Rouhani’s “constructive and dignified engagement with the world” has been developed as a permanent effort in striking a balance between continuity and change. Aware of the hawkish resistance before him, Rouhani chose a viable path of principled compromise by boosting the pragmatic centrist position in his electoral strategy. However, the real balance was in Rouhani and his allies’ political strategy to slow down the growth of the power-base of hardliners in the parliament and in the Assembly. Therefore, what emerged in the run-up to the elections was an alignment among three key figures of the Iranian Revolution — Hassan Rouhani, Hashemi Rafsanjani and Hassan Khomeini (late Ayatollah Khomeini’s grandson) — who, by targeting the Assembly, tried to push back ultra-conservative figures like Ahmad Jannati and Mohammad Taghi Mesbah-Yazdi and win against all those empowered since the election of former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2005. Unfortunately, the Guardians’ Council (Council), the influential oversight body examining all laws passed by parliament, disqualified a large number of contestants.
While a total of 12,123 aspiring candidates registered to run, only 4,720 were qualified. Not surprisingly, out of the total 3,000 reformist candidates, only 30, or 1 per cent, were allowed by the Council.
The extent of disqualifications represents a tour de force by the hardliners who continue to be worried by Rouhani’s management of domestic politics and his close diplomatic relations with the West. As a result, every effort was made to block the entry of reformers to parliament and the Assembly, in order to consolidate the hardliners’ hold and prevent Rouhani’s government from advancing its economic and political priorities.
It’s very unlikely, though, that the pragmatic centrists could bring about sweeping changes in the near future. But the elimination of reformists will not end Rouhani’s efforts to push his agenda among the more pragmatic and business-oriented members of the Revolutionary Guards and the more flexible sections of the conservative faction in parliament. After all, as secretary of the Supreme National Security Council in 1989-2005, Rouhani has learned his lessons well in Iranian Machiavellianism. He knows when and how to compromise with his allies, whether reformists or moderates inside the conservative camp.
Without reformists in the future parliament, Rouhani’s best chance would be a legislative body with a majority of moderates and semi-conservatives. The reality is that, with Hassan Khomeini’s disqualification, Rouhani’s hopes of forming a powerful faction within the Assembly ended. Surely then, the conservatives should have all the cards to dominate, although former president Rafsanjani’s qualification might steer the Assembly towards his own strategies in choosing the next Supreme Leader.
The outcome of the Assembly election (essentially a contest between those like Rafsanjani who advocate a permanent Leadership Council to take on the tasks of the Supreme Leader and hardliners who favour selection of a new Supreme Leader), will have a big impact on domestic and foreign policies. In view of the Supreme Leader’s important role, the new Assembly’s decision could be a turning point for the Revolution and its consequences.
One doesn’t have to be clairvoyant to discern the future of Iranian politics. The elections will change nothing immediately. But then, these polls are the closest politics can come to shaping Iran’s future. The real impact will be felt over the next few years when the battle for the next Supreme Leader begins. But the electoral outcome of February 2016 will be more significant than Rouhani’s 2013 presidential victory.