Iran’s majlis elections: the hidden dynamics

Rasool Nafisi
11 April 2008

The result of the elections for the eighth majlis (parliament) in Iran on 14 March 2008 was on the surface predictable, with conservatives winning around two-thirds of the seats and reformists about one-third. The two-thirds figure is decisive since it gives that the winning side the ability to control the legislative agenda, and by the same token prevents the losers from sponsoring any major legislation (unless via unlikely coalition with other forces). Yet behind the results, these elections highlight several distinctive features of the current state of Iranian politics that may influence the outcome of the presidential elections due in 2009.

Among these is the outright support of the military establishment for the conservative (or "principlist") forces. On 31 January 2008, the commander of the Sepah-e Pasdaran-e Enghelab-e Islami (Revolutionary Guards / IRGC), Mohammad Ali Aziz-Jaafari, had addressed both IRGC members and members of the Basij militia, telling them to control the election process in order to make sure the "principlists" are saved (he later said that he meant the principles of the 1979 revolution). Soon afterwards, the chief-of-staff of the military (Hassan Firoozabadi) and one of his commanders (Colonel Massoud Jazaeri) assailed the reformists as less than loyal citizens who are "intimidated" by the enemy. In the same vain, Nasser Sha'boni, the commander of the officer's academy of the IRGC, stated: "How in the world do they [the reformists] dare to register for the elections? They do so just to clutter and overwhelm the registration process. Otherwise they know well that they would not be qualified [by the Guardian Council] to run for the parliament."

The interventionist tone of the military commanders was so obvious - and to some, so offensive - that Hassan Khomeini (Ayatollah Khomeini's grandson, who is rumoured to aspire to become supreme leader) openly and repeatedly objected to them. Khomeini said that his grandfather's great legacy was to have kept the military out of politics, something he even proclaimed in his testament. "But now the reversal of that legacy is underway", Hassan declared.

Rasool Nafisi teaches the sociology of development at Strayer University in Virginia. He contributes to various news agencies, including the Voice of America, BBC, and Radio France International. His website is here

Also by Rasool Nafisi in openDemocracy:

"The meaning of Ramin Jahanbegloo's arrest" (16 May 2006)

"Ramin Jahanbegloo: a repressive release" (1 September 2006)

"Haleh Esfandiari: Iran's cultural prison" (17 May 2007)

These statements were rebuffed harshly by circles close to Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. A website supporting him even wrote that Hassan is a man "wallowing in the good life" and receiving bribes from the reformists. Again, this level of attack on the "house of the Imam [Khomeini]" is unprecedented. A strong reaction from other power-centres forced the conservative site to shut down. But in defending the honor of the "house of the Imam" at the Expediency Council, the former manager of Ayatollah Khomeini's office, Ayatollah Tavassoli, died of a heart attack. This in turn prompted former president Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani to condemn the intervention of the military in politics and support Hassan Khomeini's position.

Amid this controversy, supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei remained silent. To many observers, this implied tacit approval of what the military community was doing. More surprising, the ayatollah made a speech that was rightly interpreted as an act of direct support for the conservatives against the reformist candidates. Among the qualifications for the "most suitable" candidates, he mentioned belief in social justice, aversion to corruption, and backing of the poor and deprived. He also affirmed his preference for candidates who, according to Khamenei "separate their line unequivocally from the enemy [the United States]."

The key terms used by the supreme leader are all code words indicating the ideology of the conservative camp, Ahmadinejad in particular. Justice, not democracy, not justice; enmity toward America, not modernity; patronage of the poor, not development and fiscal responsibility- these are the symbolic markers distinguishing conservatives from reformists. To make his point clear, in his next speech the ayatollah said outright that the nation should vote for those who would help the government to do its job more easily.

Two blocs, three factions

The electoral strategies of the chief political forces reflected these linguistic-ideological contrasts.

The conservatives

As in the seventh majlis elections in February 2004 (with a run-off in May), the conservative camp supported by Ayatollah Khamenei pursued a clear strategy of seeking to keep parliament under conservative control by securing the required two-thirds majority. The Guardian Council contributed to this outcome by disqualifying the conservatives' rivals in most areas.

As a result, these rivals were denied the opportunity to challenge the conservatives in over 160 of the majlis's 290 seats. The main reformist party, the Jebheye Mosharekate Iran-e Eslaami (Islamic Iran Participation Front / Mosharekat - which supported the former president, Mohammad Khatami - was allowed to field only 102 candidates across the country. The minimum voting age was also raised from 15 to 18, in order to remove a large bloc of probable supporters of moderate candidates. At the same time, to inflate the turnout figures the interior ministry ordered that blank and unreadable votes should be included in the voting count (some Iranians, fearing reprisal if they do not vote or vote for the "wrong" candidate, go to the polling booths but drop a blank ballot-paper into the box).

The strategy began to unravel when internal bickering led to the split of the conservatives into three groups clustering around their respective "lists" (Iranians can vote for up to thirty candidates for the majlis, and the so-called lists provide the voter with thirty names). The "comprehensive principlists" gathered around Ali Larijani; they had split from the "united principlists", who supported Gholamali Haddad-Adel (and by extension, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad). The third group was the "compromise list", whose members were endorsed by both conservative factions.

The moderates

The moderate forces, from the Nehzat-e Azadi-e Iran (Freedom Movement) to the Hezb-e Etedal va Tose'e (Development & Moderation Party), proposed ideas to deal with what they called the "illegitimate activities of the state". The Freedom Movement went as far as calling for international supervision of the elections, led by the United Nations; this idea was scorned by the supreme leader and was even called "treasonous".

Among openDemocracy's articles about Iran's politics under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad:

Dariush Zahedi & Omid Memarian, "Ahmadinejad, Iran and America" (15 January 2007)

Kamin Mohammadi, "Voices from Tehran" (31 January 2007)

Fred Halliday, "The matter with Iran" (1 March 2007)

Sanam Vakil, "Iran's hostage politics" (2 April 2007)

Nazenin Ansari, "Tehran's new political dynamic" (16 April 2007)

Omid Memarian, "Iran: prepared for the worst" (30 October 2007)

Jan De Pauw, "Iran, the United States and Europe: the nuclear complex" (5 December 2007)

Nasrin Alavi", Iran's new order" (28 January 2008)

Nasrin Alavi, "Iran's election signals" (18 March 2008)

Some student bodies and other groups - joined by prominent commentators such as Abbas Amir-Entezam - suggested a boycott. Three moderate leaders, former presidents and/or speakers of the majlis - Mohammad Khatami, Hashemi-Rafsanjani, and Mohammad Karrubi - showed interest in discussing the harsh vetting of the Guardian Council with Khamenei; Karrubi managed to do so, and won some reprieve for his own preferred candidates.

The call for a boycott was controversial. Khatami in particular asked for active participation by voters to elect anyone who is remotely close to the moderates, and to undo the conservative "plot" to monopolise political power. A few other groups and voices argued that voting and participation would be seen as legitimising the unfair vetting process. In the end, the advocates of voting won more support.

But moderates too fractured into three main groups. The main division was between the supporters of Khatami and of Karrubi. The pro-Khatami Mosharekat won more votes than backers of the former speaker Karrubi, who had tried to distance himself from the reformists by calling them "extremists". But even more important, Hashemi-Rafsanjani, a significant figure in the Iranian leadership, withdrew all of his Hezb-e Kaargozaaraan-e Saazandegi (Executives of Construction Party / Kargozaran) candidates and refused to register for the elections in protest at the lack of impartiality of the process. His withdrawal does not bode well for the future of the Islamic state.

The post-election landscape

The final shape of the election results remains disputed by the various camps and factions. But aside from sixty-eight seats whose results will be determined by run-off elections on 25 April 2008, the votes of the six factions and electoral blocs were distributed as follows:

* Jebheh Mottahed Osulgarayan, led by Haddad Adel (pro-Ahmadinejad): 59
* E'telaf-e Faragir-e Osulgarayan (Broad Principlist Coalition), led by Ali Larijani: 36
* Combined list of both factions: 44
* Reformists (Khatami) and Etemad Melli (Karrubi): 24
* Independents:49
* Minorities: 10

Both main camps, conservatives and reformists, claimed victory. Conservatives crowed that their agenda has been approved by the nation; moderates said that they won in the face of vehement restrictions by the government. Mostafa Tajzadeh, the election coordinator of Mosharekat, announced that in the early stages of counting (and excluding Tehran votes) it had already won sixty seats - almost equal to the conservative tally at that stage, despite the immense state support media propaganda the conservatives could rely on. He concluded that the way the majlis is "engineered" to guarantee a conservative majority directly contravenes the nation's wishes.

Indeed, the election turnout showed a marked difference between the capital, Tehran (40% of eligible voters) and the rest of the country (60%). The political weight of this city of over 6 million eligible voters is emphasised by the fact that almost all Iran's 240 political parties and organisations operate there; and voters in Tehran are arguably the most politically conscious of all Iranians. Yet the level of political apathy this time round was notable; the higher turnout in other areas may be attributed to the power of local issues and the fact that provincial voters are less able to protect their anonymity from the prying eyes of the authorities.

One of the main features of the elections was the increasing factionalism, which assured some moderates that no matter how hard the "autocrats" try, the political system cannot by be monopolised by one faction. But in reality the increasing rate of growth of factionalism demonstrates a weakness in Iran's political culture (one reflected in international relations as well): namely, a lack of readiness for compromise.

Yet the energetic participation of the conservatives and their decline into factionalism suggest that future rivalries may acquire a different character - emerging along a conservative / radical conservative axis rather than a conservative / reformist one. In fact even in the seventh majlis, it was conservative members such as Emad Afrough and Elias Naderan who held the government of Ahmadinejad to account. The moderates in the majlis - probably fearing that they would be disqualified for the future elections - have been the most inactive members of all.

Now, as the political will of the Iranian leadership continues to keep a firm grip on the reformists, and limit their role to forming an ineffective minority in themajlis, the moderates have decided to adapt and (in the words of their leaders) form a "strong minority". This would be a welcome event, because presently the minority has been more silent than strong.

More broadly, the rising power-bloc in the political arena seems to be mainly composed of military/security/radical conservative forces. In fact, this new bloc is disrespectful even of the icons of the regime, such as Ayatollah Khomeini. It may even be that this new force is separating itself from most of the clerical body. In his Friday-prayer sermon on 15 February, Ayatollah Hashemi-Rafsanjani had warned - in a clear reference to this new bloc - that there are some forces who want to "alienate" the clergy from society.

Indeed, the fact that Rafsanjani, the most important force of moderation in the leadership, boycotted the elections by withdrawing his candidates, is a sign of the regime's increasing radicalism. It is noteworthy that in the seventh majlis there were over sixty MPs with seminary education, including most of the eleven female members; this seems certain to decline in the new majlis, when all the figures are available.

The major issues

The most important issue on the agenda of the next majlis will be the economy, as hyperinflation cripples the buying-power of the middle class and the poor alike. The conservatives of the (pro-Larijani) E'telaf-e Faragir-e Osulgarayan (Broad Principlist Coalition / Faragir) faction, and possibly the minority faction, will jointly assail Ahmadinejad's inflationary policies. The rising rate of narcotics addiction and of prostitution will be discussed too. In foreign policy, Ahmadinejad and his allies seek to use matters such as Iran's claim to nuclear technology to gain domestic political advantage, though such issues may prove to be off-limits for the majlis (as they are in the print media).

The eighth majlis elections offer signals too for the presidential elections of 2009. Some optimists, like Mostafa Tajzadeh, argue that the present elections demonstrate that Mosharekat candidate Mohammad Khatami is sure to win next time, but that may prove an illusion. The reformists' agenda may not be as attractive to voters as they think. The seventh majlis and the city-council elections in January 2007 showed to some extent a national indifference to the reformists' agenda. The moderates indeed may have a better chance of coming back to power through an alliance with some conservatives such as Mohammad-Baqer Qalibaf, the mayor of Tehran. He likes to be seen as a moderate, and as a modern leader. He may welcome support from the reformists, and could help them with some of their socio-political demands.

However, the ingrained flaws of current Iranian politics and Iranian political culture more generally, again demonstrated in the majlis elections - their personalised nature, the dominance of personal ambitions rather than concern for national or even factional interests, and loathing for compromise - may all inhibit such alliances. If - and it is a big if - these can be overcome, the rise of moderate forces in both camps mean that the chance for building a powerful moderate bloc today is better than at any time since the election of 2005.

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