by Farideh Farhi
December 25 marked the last day of registration for the February 26 joint elections in Iran for the parliament and the Assembly of Experts. Like the deadline for the Assembly of Experts registration two days earlier, the large number of people wanting to register at the last minute led to the extension of the deadline until midnight.
According to the Interior Ministry, 12,123 individuals registered to run for parliament (with women increasing their participation from 8 percent in 2012 to 12 percent of total registrants), more than twice the number registered for the lackluster 2012 election (and 45 percent higher than the previous high record of 8,365 in 1996). For the Assembly of Experts the number was 801, a 62 percent increase from the last election in 2006. The Interior Ministry, which has the first crack at the parliamentary qualification process, will reject some of the parliament registrants who don’t meet the minimum requirements set by law for being a candidate. In the end, however, the Guardian Council, which is the ultimate vetting body, will disqualify the larger number of registrants for both bodies, for mostly political reasons. The average rate of parliamentary disqualification since the Guardian Council sharpened its vetting knife in 2004 is around 37 percent; for the past two Assembly elections, it was approximately 65 percent.
But the increase in the number of registrants is still noteworthy and reflects the fact that all political forces active within the Islamic Republic take the elections for both the parliament and the Assembly of Experts seriously. In effect, the upcoming electoral process is a confirmation that elections are back as a significant mechanism for redefining and recalibrating the country’s balance of political forces.
Unlike the 2012 parliamentary election, there is no talk of boycotting the election, and the high number of registrants suggests that reformists and centrists have backups in all 207 precincts if their better-known registrants are disqualified. The spokesman for the Guardian Council has already stated that anyone who supported or was close to the 2009 “sedition”—meaning anyone who doubted the results of the 2009 presidential election—will be disqualified. Still, no matter how many reformists and centrists the conservative Guardian Council disqualifies (the vetting process will not be finalized until mid-February), there will still be some left to compete. If this bloc succeeds, the tenth parliamentary session in the history of the Islamic Republic will be more in tune with the executive branch led by President Hassan Rouhani. Since the incumbency rate is quite low in Iran—historically hovering below 30 percent—significant change is quite possible in the make-up of the parliament, which is currently controlled by conservatives with the presence of a loud hardline contingent to their side.
Being out of sync with the public mood, hardliners have the most to lose in this election. Their attempt to run within a broader conservative coalition—identified as principlist—has so far failed and is unlikely to succeed in the future. Their current representatives in the parliament as well as their media have taken a loud oppositional stance toward the nuclear agreement with the P5+1—the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)—which the public generally supports even though economic benefits of the agreement have not yet been felt.
If anything, after a quick burst of hope and economic energy when the interim nuclear agreement was reached in November 2013, the Islamic Republic is suffering from one of its worst recessions since its inception. The hardliners keep reminding the electorate of this fact. Selling out the country to America without any perceptible economic benefit is a serious charge. But this charge will only find traction if hardliners can offer a better way of managing the economy and relating to the world, which they have failed so far to do. So the issue is not whether voters will now find the hardliners attractive but whether their disappointment with a lack of economic improvement will lead them to stay home.
Despite the inflated claims of voter turnout, the election of many of the hardline MPs in 2012 was made possible by low voter turnout in large cities in the wake of the perception of fraud in the 2009 presidential election and the ensuing crackdown. In the city of Tehran, for instance, some of the most strident hardline MPs, such as cleric Hamid Rasai and Mehdi Kuchakzadeh, were elected with fewer than 300,000 votes in a city of several million eligible voters.
Although it is hard to predict the extent of voter turnout, especially if the disqualification rate is higher than usual, the determination of all political forces to compete in the election should provoke an increased turnout in large cities where there are multiple seats. In the unlikely scenario that all reformist candidates are disqualified, the incentive to not repeat the mistake made in the 2012 parliamentary election will in all likelihood steer voters less toward a boycott and more toward centrist or even pragmatic conservative candidates in order to deny victory to the hardliners. In my very unscientific poll conducted in Iran in November, I asked people whether they intended to vote. “But of course” was the most frequent answer. Almost all of my respondents had boycotted the 2012 election.
The same logic of preventing hardliners from getting elected might even work in the opposite direction, as it did in the 2013 presidential election. If both reformist and centrist candidates are qualified, the one with the lesser chance of winning might be encouraged to withdraw in favor of the other in order to prevent vote-splitting and thus opening the path for a hardline victory in any given precinct.
Indeed, Mostafa Tajzadeh, the deputy interior minister during Mohammad Khatami’s presidency who has been in prison since 2009, urged his fellow reformists in a message conveyed via his spouse, to entertain the possibility of withdrawing in support of a moderate conservative whose chances of winning are better. He compared Iran’s Majles election to France’s recent elections in which parties of the traditional right and left of the political spectrum formed an “unwritten alliance” to deny the “racist” National Front victory in the second round of voting. He called for a similar unwritten alliance between reformists and moderate conservatives in highly contested precincts in order to prevent the “victory of warmongering candidates who intend to void the JCPOA” and further securitize the political environment. Following this logic, do not be surprised if Ali Larijani, the current conservative speaker of the parliament, who is assured of getting reelected from the city of Qom, ends up remaining speaker even if a centrist-reformist alliance does well in the election.
To be sure, when it comes to such an unwritten alliance, “might” is the operative word: organization and coordination even within various reformist camps and with the centrists is not a given. It is, however, a real possibility in light of memories of their past failures due to lack of coordination and of their success in the 2013 presidential election. In other words, past experiences have given the reformists and centrists an incentive to work together and even to entertain the possibility of supporting moderate conservatives. Meanwhile, the so-called principlists have yet to figure out a way to act in concert despite the harm their disunity brought them in 2013.
Assembly of Experts
The story is a bit different regarding the Assembly of Experts, which may witness its first competitive election. As mentioned above, the experience of the last two elections suggests a higher disqualification rate. In addition, the competition will mostly be within the conservative ranks of different hues, ranging from ultra to moderate conservative even in the unlikely scenario of a few reformist clerics being allowed to run. Still, even if only 35 percent of registrants are allowed to run, this will be the first time that on average more than three candidates will be competing for any given seat. In previous elections the number of vetted candidates did not even reach twice as many seats. In addition, differences regarding the conduct of the Assembly, its role in its oversight of the Supreme Leader, and what type of arrangement should follow the current Leader are both real and openly expressed.
These differences have led to the registration of a larger number of younger clerics, including Hassan Khomeini, the grandson of the founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, as well as some older prominent clerics who previously refused to enter the competition because of their rejection of the Guardian Council’s vetting. They have now done so at the urging of former president and former chair of the Assembly Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who has openly expressed his desire to see a more active Assembly in its oversight of the office of the Leader and in its preparation for the transition to a new leadership if (or when) the need arises.
Whether there will be some recalibration in the Assembly’s membership along the lines Hashemi Rafsanjani hopes for is uncertain. To be sure, there will be some generational shift. In fact, although the attempt to increase the membership of the Assembly failed earlier this year, new members will have to fill at least 20 percent of the seats given the death of current members in office and the non-candidacy of several others. But the intense opposition to Hashemi Rafsanjani by key members of the Guardian Council has raised the possibility not only of his own disqualification but also of those allied with him and, in their place, the qualification of younger hardline clerics to counter his influence.
It is surely one the oddest feature of the Islamic Republic that clerical members of the Guardian Council, five of whom are candidates for the Assembly, will also vet the candidates for the Assembly. True, the law is explicit that the Guardian Council members who are themselves candidates for the Assembly from a particular precinct cannot vet the other candidates for the same precinct. But I am not sure if the Council’s current chair, Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati—a diehard foe of Hashemi Rafsanjani who was responsible for his disqualification in the 2013 presidential election—will follow the letter or spirit of the law. Avoiding conflicts of interest has never been his forte or concern.
But there are also no signs that Hashemi Rafsanjani will curb either his sharp tongue or his desire to make the Assembly’s election a competitive one. His opponents and the hardline press have hurled every insult at him. He has been accused of being decadent, the real source of sedition, out to get rid of Ayatollah Khamenei and the very institution of Leadership, and determined to become the second Ayatollah Montazeri, the presumed successor to Ayatollah Khomeini before he was stripped of his position and eventually placed under house arrest for several years. But Hashemi Rafsanjani remains undaunted by the criticism, calling the insults and pressures on him just noise by “extremists” who are like “crows that fly on top of trees.”
Whether the hardliners will be pushed aside to become more like the noise Hashemi Rafsanjani perceives or wishes them to be is not assured. But the next two months leading up to the February election is already promising to be quite raucous.
Photo Credit: ISNA/Mehdi Ghasemi