On 26 February 2016, Iran woke to two elections, the elections for the Assembly of Experts and the Iranian Parliament (the Majlis). This electoral battle, being the first since Iran signed a major nuclear agreement with the US, will be fought between the incumbent hardliners, the reformists and moderates,
The Islamic Consultative Assembly has 290 seats and 207 constituencies. Every four years, members are elected. There are no parties, only individuals (over 12,000 this time, cut down to 6,000 by the supervising Guardian Council) competing for a spot in the highly sought after Parliament.
The candidates usually fall into one of three categories: reformist, moderate and hard-line
For the Parliament in Tehran, the reformists put their weight behind former presidential candidate, Mohammad Reza Aref (as leader of the Pervasive Coalition of Reformists). He is well known for stepping down in the 2013 presidential elections, a move that helped the current president win. The hardliners support Gholamali Haddad-Adel, who represents the Principlists Coalition.
The Assembly of Experts of the leadership is made of 88 Mujtahids (Islamic theologians), who are tasked with selecting the Supreme Leader (the highest office in the state). Elections to this assembly take place every eight years. While the actual authority the assembly commands is debatable, one of its most significant functions is choosing the next Supreme Leader who occupies the highest office. Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Khamenei, as the current Supreme Leader has control over all the branches of government, the media and the military, whether this control be explicit or otherwise. As the head of a highly factionalized autocratic state, all major policy decisions, whether domestic or international need his approval. Yet, his main concerns have been preservation of the Iranian theocracy and his place in it. This is reflected in his attitude toward dissenters of the state; punishment is usually imprisonment, and can even be capital.
While the Iranian constitution was meant to contain both theocratic and democratic elements, in effect the unelected institutions (including the Supreme Leader and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps) have much more power than the elected ones, like the President and the Parliament.
Khamenei is now 76. The candidates elected to the Assembly might have to choose his successor, who will then occupy the most powerful office in the state. Reformists and Moderates have an eye on former president Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, as a possible Supreme Leader. President of the Islamic Republic from 1989 to 1997 and commander-in-chief of the country’s armed forces during the Iran-Iraq war, he now heads the expediency council (which links the Parliament and the Guardian Council). He is widely regarded as a founding father of the state, and is linked to its history. If the Reformists and Moderates do come to power in the Assembly, it might pave way for a less authoritarian candidate, which will make President Rouhani’s attempts to democratize Iran more effective. As of right now, all of Rouhani’s movements are severely restricted by Khamenei, and the current hardliner Parliament. For the past three years, Rouhani’s economic, political and cultural initiatives have been rejected by the other statue institutions, so much so that one of his ministers was impeached in 2014.
A moderate with a strong inclination towards internal reform, Rouhani’s victory over the hardliners in the 2013 elections came as a surprise to many. For over a decade now, all major political institutions had been run by hardliners. While Rouhani’s government is moderate, other political institutions in the state are still run by the hardliners. The moderates and reformists need to effectively sway voters if they want to come to power in the state. Much of Iran’s vast middle class has approved of the changes made by the moderate government. The 2016 elections could be just what Rouhani’s government needs. With the next presidential elections coming up in 2017, any ripples in the political fabric will directly affect him.
Rouhani made promises about signing a nuclear deal which would help the staggering economy, and an increase in personal liberties. A friendly parliament will help him achieve this. Rouhani’s talk of economic and political reforms within the state, and his hopes of establishing easier Europe relations all look at making Iran less isolated. Opening the economy allows the government to offer better jobs, medical care and housing. Foreign policy is still out of his reach though, unless reformists and moderates are voted in with a huge majority.
Iran has had its share of controversial elections. Allegations of vote rigging in the re-election of former president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad led to a popular revolt, one that was soon crushed by the government. Yet, 2016 could be a repeat of 2013, when the current President, Hassan Rouhani, was elected.
The Guardian Council, a body that vets the candidates for elections, has stopped many popular reform candidates standing for elections, with only 30 approved out of over 3,000 applicants. The procedure by which the Council chooses candidates is seen by many as opaque, with the restrictions on this year’s candidates being the harshest yet. These include former president and reformist Khatami, and Hassan Khomeini (Ayatollah Khomeini’s grandson) in the Assembly elections. Overall, 60% of the original candidates have been rejected. This selective vetting makes it harder for the reformists to secure a majority in Parliament. The Council also disqualified all the female candidates for the Assembly of Experts, along with almost 80% of the overall number of potential candidates. This is not an unusual move for the Council, who has on previous occasions stuck to conservative candidates too.
The outcome of the elections will not be known immediately. Over the weekend, individual names will be released, but because of the lack of parties it will be hard to see which faction emerged on top. By next week though, we should have a clearer idea of how the new Assembly of Experts and Parliament will be constituted.
(A previous version of this article stated that the elections were to be held on 26 January. The same has now been corrected, and the article has been modified to reflect new edits)