By Ali Fathollah-Nejad *
Iran’s 21 February parliamentary (Majlis) elections, which took place amid massive internal and external challenges to the state, ended with an all-too predictable result: the conservative camp – the so-called ‘principlists’ (osoul-garâ), consisting of conservatives and ultra-conservatives – emerged victorious, not least because of the mass disqualification of most reformist and moderate contenders (including eighty sitting MPs) by the ultraconservative Guardian Council that vets candidates for elections. As a result, the reformists had refused to endorse candidates in twenty-two of the country’s thirty-one provinces, including the capital Tehran where thirty seats were up for grabs.
Although these elections, the most uncompetitive in years, signalled the hardliners’ bold willingness to seek the monopolisation of power within the Islamic Republic’s institutions, the historic low turn-out has dealt a major blow to the legitimacy of the regime, and reflected the low level of people’s confidence toward it. As such, the elections’ outcome may complicate the realisation of such ambitions for power monopolisation, potentially constituting a Pyrrhic victory.
Against this backdrop, various scenarios regarding the domestic distribution of power can be envisaged, especially in view of presidential elections set for June 2021 – from monopolisation of power by hardliners all the way to a reformist comeback for the sake of regime survival. In foreign policy, the conservatives’ increasingly tight grip on all institutions – contrary to conventional assumptions of further hardening the fronts between Iran and the USA – might actually facilitate an arrangement with Washington.
Many candidates, little participation
These elections assembled a few superlatives compared to the eleven parliamentary elections held under the Islamic Republic since 1979: While a record number of people applied to run (around 16 000), the Guardian Council only approved a record low number (forty-four per cent of applicants); in total numbers, three times as many were disqualified in 2019 as compared to the last elections in 2016; and the number of approved candidates was the highest ever. The Guardian Council, whose members are directly and indirectly approved by the Supreme Leader, is responsible to vet candidates for parliamentary, presidential and Assembly of Experts elections. Most of those disqualified in these elections were reformists, undermining the Council’s allegedly non-partisan claim that most were excluded because of pending financial corruption charges.
Another superlative is the historic low voter turnout. It was officially put at 42.6%; yet, in reality, it is believed to be much lower, with some estimating it to be half as much. In the 2016 parliamentary elections, the official turnout was 61.8%. The hardliners are usually believed to represent only 15% of the population, who remain loyal to the system because of ideological persuasion and/or material benefits. Thus, a high turnout has usually benefited reformists.
The low turnout this time around is a major blow to the regime as a whole, but especially to the Supreme Leader who had argued that the election results will define the ruling system’s very ‘prestige’. The reduced participation was despite an unprecedented campaign led by state media and the Supreme Leader to urge people to vote, portrayed as a national and religious duty to protect the nation from its omnipresent enemies; despite various coercive elements conventionally deployed by the state to persuade people towards the polling stations (from bussing in military conscripts to hidden fears by segments of society that not voting will negatively impact their access to state allocations and job prospects); and despite the voting period being extended by several hours. Hence, the low turnout is a reflection of a general public mood toward a ruling system seen by many as increasingly illegitimate, incompetent, and anathema to the interests of many citizens.
The low turnout was rationalised by Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani-Fazli as reflecting the prevalent social mood in the country and people’s deep discontent and disillusionment following the nationwide anti-regime protests of January 2018 and November 2019, and, more recently, the January 2020 downing of a passenger jet, killing all 176 on board, with authorities having lied about their responsibility for three days.
The Conservative victory
Conservatives won 230 of the 290 parliamentary seats, including all 30 in Tehran (where not a single MP was re-elected), while reformists won sixteen seats. The Hope Faction, which supports President Hassan Rouhani and is headed by reformist Mohammad-Reza Aref (who had topped the Tehran results in the 2016 parliamentary elections, but decided not to run this year) is believed to have lost more than 90% of its MPs (with only seven MPs in the next parliament instead of the current 120), while the entire moderate camp is believed to have won a maximum of fifty seats. The parliament will thus completely be transformed, with less than one fifth of sitting MPs represented in the next Majlis.
In the capital, Mohammad-Bagher Ghalibaf, a former Tehran mayor with higher political ambitions, topped the list with over a million votes. In contrast, in 2016 all Tehran MPs got more than a million votes, indicating the widespread stayaway in the capital city in 2020. The victors in Tehran were, thus, the conservative camp and Ghalibaf.
The wider conservative camp, composed of numerous factions, emerged victorious, with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as its most powerful institution expected to further gain ground and Ghalibaf, the most successful conservative candidate, well positioned for higher political offices. With its new power over the parliament, the IRGC could extend its current dominance in the military, intelligence, and economic spheres onto the political one, making the military-rule component in the Islamic Republic more pronounced.
The mass disqualifications and the low turnout may signal a miscalculation on the part of the ultraconservatives, as well as their sense of hubris – due to a large extent to the moderate camp’s weaknesses and failures. The miscalculation is because this election could end a rather well-functioning safety net meant to channel public discontent, and a mechanism for regime resilience, namely, offering the choice – as many Iranians refer to it – between a lesser and a greater evil (i.e., the moderates or reformists against the hardliners). However, despite the conservative camp’s victory, its sense of hubris ahead of the elections had allowed for fiercer confrontations and contradictions within it openly, which might play out in the next years. The conservative camp includes three main factions, which both compete and cooperate with each other:
- ‘Velâ’i’ – the dominant faction, which promotes full allegiance to the Supreme Leader,
- ‘Pâydâri’ – (officially the Front of Islamic Revolution Stability or Endurance), a smaller faction loyal to ultraconservative cleric Ayatollah Mohammad-Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi, and headed by his protégé and secretary-general of the faction, Morteza Aghatehrani, which in late 2018 had introduced a bill to impeach the foreign minister, Javad Zarif,
- A ‘neo-principlist’ faction– including a formation consisting of a younger generation of conservatives loyal to the Islamic Revolution, pursuing an agenda under the banner of welfare, growth and development, and supported by Ghalibaf.
Ghalibaf future president?
The most prominent figure emerging from the elections is Ghalibaf, whose Proud Iran (Iran-e Sarboland) list, uniting many principlists and critics of the Rouhani administration, had fielded thirty candidates. He ranked first in Tehran, and is thus poised to assume the powerful position of parliamentary speaker, which he could use to position himself as the next president. Ghalibaf had failed to win the presidency thrice: 2005, 2013, and 2017. He began his career in the security-military establishment, then delved into the economic and political spheres – most of which was closely connected to the IRGC. During the Iraq-Iran War, he held chief commander positions in several brigades and divisions. After the war, he became managing director of the IRGC’s engineering arm, Khatam-ol Anbia, the main economic entity of the Guards since then-president Rafsanjani integrated them into the post-war reconstruction economy, and which has developed an economic empire of its own. Ghalibaf was later appointed by Khamenei as the commander of the IRGC air force (1997-2000); became chief of police (or the Law Enforcement of the Islamic Republic of Iran, or NAJA, 2000-2005); more recently, mayor of Tehran (2005-2017); and is currently the Expediency Council’s Economic Commission Deputy. In 2001, he obtained a doctorate in political geography from Tarbiat Modares University in Tehran, with a dissertation entitled Analysis of the Local State in Iran.
With a security background, Ghalibaf’s political agenda combines economic populism, technocratic management (he was largely seen in this light during his twelve years as Tehran mayor) and militaristic nationalism (during the parliamentary campaign, he played on his close friendship with the late head of the IRGC’s Quds Force, General Qassem Soleimani, during the Iraq-Iran War). Given more extremist elements within the conservative camp, he will have a good chance of becoming president as a ‘’lesser evil’ option.
Facilitating talks with Washington
For Iran’s regional and international friends and foes, the historic low turnout, which did not escape their attention, indicated the depth of the regime’s legitimacy crisis, while the hardliners’ victory signalled the political trajectory to be expected. There is little chance of foreign policy changes as a result of these elections. Until the 2021 presidential elections, it is likely that there will be a duality of voices from Tehran: a moderate one from the Rouhani administration and a hardline one from other institutions (the IRGC and, now, the Majlis). Both voices operating in tandem have usually demonstrated their usefulness for the regime and the Supreme Leader.
Contrary to conventional thinking, the hardliners’ increasing grip on power might actually help facilitate talks with the USA; such talks are indispensable given Iran’s desperate need to unshackle itself of US sanctions for the sake of regime stability. One major reason for such a scenario, which may play out only after the US and Iranian presidential elections, is that a key impediment to hardliners’ rejection of an opening with the West or negotiations with Washington would be removed. Currently, hardliners’ concern is that an opening to the West, a process which will be negotiated by their rival elite moderate forces if the president is from that camp, would endanger or not sufficiently guarantee their politico-economic and ideological interests. Such concern may just be the result of paranoia; after all, the Supreme Leader supervises and controls any such process of negotiations, thus acting as a guarantor of his hardline allies’ interest.
No redistributive measures
There might be more bold attempts by the future conservative parliament to unseat important figures of the moderate administration, but this is unlikely to be supported by the Supreme Leader – given the aforementioned benefits for the balance of a duality of elite voices. Regarding state-society relations, the gulf between the two sides will likely widen, given the unlikelihood that people’s socioeconomic demands will be met in the short term, with US sanctions continuing unabated, and no major economic policy changes or redistribution of wealth on the horizon. Thus, the conservative camp’s victory may only be a Pyrrhic one for the Islamic Republic as a whole, and will probably prompt some soul searching within its strategic circles about how to deal with such widespread public alienation and disenchantment.
Ideally, a unified hardline camp could offer some socioeconomic relief to lower strata of the population, by utilising its unrivalled access to state and semi-state resources (which they largely control), even in the absence of US sanctions relief. The timing of such redistributive measures will be important: Doing so before next year’s presidential elections might inadvertently polish the tarnished image of the moderate Rouhani administration, increasing the moderate/reformist camp’s chances for his succession and thus diminishing their own. Thus, it is more probable that the hardliners’ parliamentary victory will further explicitly deepen the lame-duck performance of the current administration – soon entering its last year in office – in order later to increase their own political fortunes.
Down the road, the emerging dominant line in Iranian politics could be a kind of right-wing populism, i.e., promoting a discourse around delivering social justice without actually engaging in a redistribution of wealth, while the ideological role of nationalism will continue to rise relative to Islamism, potentially opening up some space (e.g., on the mandatory headcover for women) to absorb some public pressure, while repression against protests and civil society activism will continue unabated. In other words, the IRGC acting – or pretending to act – as iron-fisted modernisers. Be that as it may, a de facto military dictatorship will also have a hard time satisfying the population’s desire for more social equality and political freedoms. A key variable would be if any emerging political regime can maintain the current gulf between the lower classes and the middle class by playing their respective priorities against each other. In the meanwhile, as long as the coronavirus crisis rages in Iran, it is likely to impede the re-eruption of large-scale popular mobilisation, especially by the middle class, thus entrenching the feeling of resignation and despair among many.
The election results also reinvigorated discussions about the fate of reformism in Iran, most notably about whether the moderate and reformist camps’ losses could spell the ultimate demise of the already crisis-ridden reformists; in other words, whether their losses will be the kiss of death for the reformist-conservative duality within the Islamic Republic’s political establishment. Over the years, Iran’s reformists have experienced a significant loss of legitimacy among the social bases that had previously supported them, as a result of not only of the hardline camp’s combined opposition, repression and sabotage against them, but, also, and more importantly, of their own shortcomings to deliver on their political and economic promises. This has led to the belief that rather than constituting an agent of change from the top, the reformists have squarely positioned themselves within the establishment and against large sections of the population. In fact, for the first time, during the nationwide anti-regime protests since December 2017, they have been subjected to popular anger equally with the conservatives.
Against this backdrop, the future of reformism may involve two scenarios.
- A reform of reformism: This would end to the reformists’ rejection of street mobilisations and radical demands, while reversing their disregard of the ‘social question’, i.e., by proposing economic policies that would help alleviate the socioeconomic grievances of the lower classes and the middle-class poor; or
- reformists’ reintegration into the highest echelons of power, facilitated by their hardline rivals, so as to serve as the regime’s safety valve. This scenario, a function of calculations made for the sake of regime survival threatened by persisting or deepening popular discontent, would see the rehabilitation and reintegration of those within the reformist camp willing to cooperate with regime conservatives to save an Islamic Republic from which both reformists and conservatives profit.
Such a move by conservatives to reintegrate the reformists could be deemed even more necessary if public perception would be that even a more powerful post-parliamentary election conservative camp had failed to address people’s grievances. In fact, the mass disqualification of reformist candidates led to disunity in the reformist camp, from some boycotting the elections to others participating (e.g., the former reformist president, Mohammad Khatami, whose public activities since the 2009 Green Movement have been heavily restricted by regime hardliners but who was shown casting a ballot in these crucial elections), potentially a signal of some among the reformists willing to forge a coalition with the conservative camp, or, at least, with those closest to the moderates.