Reformists make gains in Iran's double election, though conservatives still rule

Reformists make gains in Iran's double election, though conservatives still rule
Vote counting in Iran's February 2016 election.
By Carmen Valache in Istanbul February 29, 2016

Iranian ultra-conservatives will have to share power with moderates and reformists after the latter performed better than expected at last week's double election for parliament and the Assembly of Experts, winning 163 seats between them and a simple majority in the 290-seat parliament (Majlis). In Tehran moderates and reformists won a sweeping victory – 30 out of 30 seats in parliament, up from two in the outgoing Majlis, and 15 out of 16 positions in the Assembly of experts – but hardliner Principlists have dominated at the polls in other regions. 

Observers view the election, the first since the EU and Canada lifted sanctions on Iran in January and the US partially so, as a vote of confidence for moderate President Hassan Rouhani, the country's lead nuclear programme negotiator. At stake at this election were domestic economic and social policies, which the parliament, or Majlis, decides on, and possibly the choice of a next Supreme Leader, who will be chosen by the 88-seat clerical Assembly of Experts. Solid support for Rouhani in this parliamentary election is also an early indicator of the presidential election in 2017, in which Rouhani is expected to run for a second term.

Prior to to the February 26 election, the Guardian Council, a vetting body, prevented some 5,700 – all but 200 overtly reformist candidates – from running for the Majlis, a worrisome sign that Rouhani's pragmatic calls for increased foreign investment might not receive enough traction in the parliament. With vote counting almost complete, it appears that support for Rouhani's policies will be greater than observers had anticipated. The question remains whether it will be enough to allow the executive to swiftly pass much-needed reforms to boost employment, promote economic growth, revamp Iran's ageing oil and gas fields, and allow European and Asian companies to invest in the country.

Record turnout

Across the country, Iranians queued at polling stations in record numbers, forcing authorities to extend the voting time, originally planned to take place between 8am and 6pm, twice until late in the evening on February 26. Observers estimate voter turnout to have exceeded 60% of the 55mn electorate; state news agency Irna said that as many as 110mn ballots were issued, and that 120,000 ballot boxes were distributed in Iran's 31 provinces.

Riding a wave of popular support after the nuclear agreement in July 2015 and the lifting of sanctions in January, Rouhani, a candidate for the Assembly of Experts himself, won a place on the 88-seat council thanks to the 2.23mn votes he received in his constituency of Tehran. Voters in the capital city decide on 16 of the 88 members on the council.

Rouhani was trumped by former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, also a moderate, who received 2.3mn votes, and by Mohammah Agha Emami's 2.28mn votes, according to the official Mehr news agency. The 81-year-old Rafsanjani is touted by some as a possible next Supreme Leader, although his advanced age and declining popularity in recent years make him an unlikely candidate. A former ally of Ayatollah Khamenei's and one of Iran's most experienced politicians and clerics, Rafsanjani was disqualified from the 2013 presidential election and lost to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in a contested 2009 election.

In Tehran, reformists and moderates won a landslide victory; not only were they the top choices for the Assembly of Experts, but they won all 30 parliamentary seats, with the leading conservative candidate placing 31st. Overall, they occupied 90 seats and could reach their goal of 100 seats after a second round of voting decides the winners of 59 seats that ended tied. Despite obvious restrictions on candidates and reports of pre-election attacks and harassment, reformists congregated around a coalition dubbed the List of Hope during the week-long electoral campaign, which appears to have been successful at mobilising voters in support of its turquoise-coloured campaign symbolism.

With prominent reformists like former prime minister Mir Hossein Mousavi under house arrest and banned from being mentioned in public, the turquoise campaign used indirect mentions like "Our message is clear. The house arrest must end" to rally voters. Two other coalitions – the yellow-coloured Coalition of Principlists and indigo-coloured Voice of the Nation – rallied behind hardliners and moderate conservatives, respectively, in a week that saw the largest cities in Iran bathed in campaign colours.

Maturing electorate

While the economy and foreign policy were the centrepieces of electoral campaigns, social issues and even the environment featured more prominently on agendas and among voters' complaints than in past elections – a sign that the Iranian electorate is becoming more sophisticated and demanding more accountability from its leaders. 

But while the landslide in Tehran was a moral victory for reformists, the majority of the seats in the Majlis, 260, were decided by voters outside the capital. On February 29, the English-language Press TV reported that "throughout the country, most of the votes are shared among Principlists", while Ayatollah Khamenei thanked the Iranian people for "this public response to the Islamic system's call" and beseeched "God for Divine blessing and guidance for people who created this glorious and laborious [election] Friday".

To Rouhani, the results of the election were an unequivocal popular vote for his policies. “People said in a clear voice to the world: 'We want moderation, not extremism’...They said in a loud voice: ‘We want interaction with the world, not confrontation’. And they said in a clear voice: 'We want to resolve our problems with the world through logic and reasoning and at the negotiating table,’” he told the audience at a car industry conference on March 1. 

Despite the victorious statements on both sides, no single faction will have an outright majority in the Majlis, for Principlists are expected to continue to hold the largest number of seats (112), followed by reformists (90) and moderate conservatives (73).  Regardless of the composition of the Majlis and of the results of the runoff election, social reforms are expected to take place gradually, as not even pragmatic Rouhani and his supporters would want to move too fast with changes that could alienate entire segments of the electorate. 

In a modest sign of progress for women's rights, women won some 22 seats in the Majlis, a record for the Islamic republic. Among them is Parvaneh Salahshori, who said women should have a choice over whether to wear the hijab, a subject that is taboo in Iran.