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Iran: A Setback for Hardliners and Little Cheer for Reformists

08 March 2016

By Amir Taheri

The final results of Iran's elections on Friday were released yesterday and it is possible to examine the latest snapshot of opinion within the ruling Khomeinist establishment. Some analysts dismiss elections in the Islamic Republic as no more than a charade if only because all candidates are pre-approved by the Council of Guardians while the Ministry of Interior rather than an independent election commission is in charge of the whole operation.

However, Iranian elections remain interesting because they offer a glimpse into the balance of forces within the regime, much like primaries in the US Republican and Democrat parties. The first item of interest in Iranians elections is the voter turnout as a measure of public interest in the exercise. Turnout figures are always hard to establish with accuracy because there is no way to verify official data.

This time, a month before voting the Interior Ministry reported that 56 million people were eligible to vote. But a week before voting that figure was brought down to a fraction under 55 million. A day after voting, the ministry announced that a further three million could not have voted because they did not have national identity cards. Thus, theoretically at least, the number of those eligible is at least 58 million.

Official figures claim that 33 million votes were cast of which 32 million were authenticated. This means that about a million votes were spoiled or blank. Interior Minister Rahmani Fazli puts the percentage of those who voted at just over 60 per cent, as opposed to around 58 per cent according to the alternative setoff figures. But even if we accept his figure, it is still four per cent lower than the last general election four years ago. In other words, the hype created by the nuclear ''deal'' with the P5+1 Group led by the US did not create the ''avalanche of participation'' that President Hassan Rouhani had hoped for.

Of the nine elections held under the Islamic Republic, yesterday's produced the second lowest turnout after the first which had only 51 per cent. There was, however, one major exception: Tehran where, compared to elections four years ago, voter turnout increased by a whopping 20 per cent to reach, helping the list backed by former President Hashemi Rafsanjani to win most of the 30 seats reserved for the capital (Rouhani is in the same faction). The Rafsanjani faction also scored a major victory by winning a majority of the 16 seats of Tehran in the Assembly of Experts, the body of mullahs that could choose or dismiss the ''Supreme Guide''.

Of equal symbolic importance was the fact that the Rafsanjani-Rouhani faction succeeded in unseating two of the most high profile ayatollahs of the hardline radical faction: Muhammad Yazdi and Muhammad-Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi from the Assembly of Experts (Ayatollah Muhammad Yazdi was President of the Assembly).

But beyond those spectacular successes, the picture is not as encouraging for the Rafsanjani-Rouhani faction not to mention President Barack Obama who had hoped for a change of course in Tehran. The next Assembly of Experts will continue to have a solid hardline majority of 58 percent compared to the Rafsanjani faction's 17 with ''weathervanes'' holding the balance of its 88 seats.

In the Islamic Majlis, the unicameral parliament, the hardliners loyal to ''Supreme Guide'' Ali Khamenei have won 153 of the 290 seats, a slim majority. The main Rafsanjani faction, known as ''Reformers'' has won seats 67 seats while a smaller list, closer to Rouhani himself, secured 13 seats. The ''Independents'' won 21 seats. The remaining seats will be decided in a second round of voting in a month's time.

The final results must be approved by the Council of the Guardians of the Constitution before they become legal. At the time of writing this analysis, a lot of horse-trading was going on to allow a few grandee losers to secure a seat.

One grandee who was squeezed in was Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, head of the Council of the Guardians of the Cosntitution. He had stood for a seat in the Assembly of Experts in Tehran but was declared stuck at the 17th place, thus failing to get in. Yesterday, however, the results were altered to let him squeeze in at 16th place.

There was talk of another grandee securing a seat in the Islamic Majlis. This was Ghulam-Ali Haddad Adel whose daughter is married to Ayaollah Khamenei's son. However, he didn't succeed getting a seat in the end because alteration of results could have led to a split in the Rafsanjani winning coalition.

Friday's election produced a major turnover of the political personnel. First, the number of female members of the Islamic Majlis was more than doubled, largely thanks to Tehran where eight women were elected.

Of the incumbent members, a whopping 54 were eliminated while another 30 had been disqualified as candidates or decided not to run.

Another feature was the continuation of the trend towards the ascendancy of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard (IRGC). Those with an IRGC background accounted for 30 per cent of the members in the outgoing Islamic Majlis. In the next Majlis that number will rise to 38 per cent. In contrast, the mullahs, accounting for 18 per cent in the outgoing Majlis will lose further ground, sinking to 12 per cent in the new parliament. The position of the military in the legislature is further strengthened by the fact that former intelligence and security officers have gained at least 12 seats in the new Majlis.

However, the biggest share, around 40 per cent, belongs to technocrats and government functionaries. All in all, the new Majlis, compared to the nine previous ones, has an even narrower social base. The bazaaris, tribal and clan figures, and professionals such as physicians and engineers, have a smaller presence in the new Majlis.

The Rafsanjani-Rouhani factions, presenting three lists in the election, suffered from the fact that the mass-audience television channels were controlled by the hardliners. That was in part compensated for by the Persian-language TV services of the BBC and the Voice of America which helped the narrative favored by ''moderates''. The hardliners, known as ''Fundamentalists'' (Ousul-garayan) also controlled most of the news agencies and a number of newspapers. The ''moderates'' were compensated by their control of the government news agency IRNA and a number of newspapers financed by Rafsanjani or his business associates.

None of the rival lists offered a political program. Thus voters made their choice on the basis of perceptions they had about candidates. Those who voted for the Rafsanjani-Rouhani list wanted to show their rejection of the hard-line policies promoted by Khamenei. The personality of the candidates also counted, especially in smaller constituencies and among religious and ethnic minorities.

Though producing no decisive shift in power in Tehran, Friday's election strengthens the position of those who promote the ''Chinese option'', that is to say focusing on economic growth combined with good relations with the outside world and crushing any opposition at home. Those who support the ''North Korean option'', that is to say a closed economic system, repression at home and adventurism abroad, have suffered a setback, especially in Tehran and other major cities.

The Rafsanjani-Rouhani faction favors better ties with the US and Great Britain. The faction led by Khamenei has just launched its ''Looking East'' strategy and counts on building an axis with Russia. If anything, the power struggle in Tehran is likely to intensify as concern about Khamenei's succession grows.

Amir Taheri was born in Ahvaz, southwest Iran, and educated in Tehran, London and Paris. He was Executive Editor-in-Chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran (1972-79). In 1980-84, he was Middle East Editor for the Sunday Times. In 1984-92, he served as member of the Executive Board of the International Press Institute (IPI). Between 1980 and 2004, he was a contributor to the International Herald Tribune. He has written for the Wall Street Journal, the New York Post, the New York Times, the London Times, the French magazine Politique Internationale, and the German weekly Focus. Between 1989 and 2005, he was editorial writer for the German daily Die Welt. Taheri has published 11 books, some of which have been translated into 20 languages. He has been a columnist for Asharq Alawsat since 1987. Taheri's latest book "The Persian Night" is published by Encounter Books in London and New York. 

  EsinIslam.Com

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