Last update: 2020-07-20 13:09:36
Parliamentary elections in Iran do not usually receive significant international attention, despite the importance of the institution that runs the legislative process. This year, the global spread of the COVID pandemic has, even more, overshadowed the result of the eleventh parliamentary elections in Iran, despite the fact that it sheds significant light on the future direction of Iranian domestic politics.
The Iranian Majles is one of the most important elected bodies of the Nezam (literally meaning “the system”), and the composition of its membership reflects the inner factionalism that is characteristic of the Islamic Republic’s contemporary politics. Although the legislative and executive powers do not necessarily follow the same political direction, the membership of the Majles can tell us a lot about the possible transformation of the Iranian political context, due to the temporal mismatch of the two election periods. It is not a coincidence that in 2004 the conservative-led parliament previewed the ascendance of hardliner President Ahmadinejad a year later, even though antagonism between the executive branch and the legislature surfaced very soon. This explains how, to some extent, the composition of the Majles and its interaction with the other constitutional bodies hints at the dialectic of power within the Islamic Republic.
In Western media, the parliamentary political competition is often depicted as a struggle between pragmatist and reformist candidates on the one side and conservatives and hardliners on the other, reflecting a dichotomous reading of Iranian politics that neglects its complexity and disregards interesting aspects of the country’s domestic sphere. It can be argued that during Ahmadinejad’s presidency (2005-2013), the conservative front revealed its internal fragmentation starting from the deep disagreements between the conservative-led parliament and the hardliner executive branch. In those years, it appeared evident that the conservative “galaxy” was undertaking a phase of ideological reassessment, due to generational changes and the rise of the so-called “second generation” of technocrats and lay-people. War veterans, members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, and young technocrats gradually replaced the politicized clergy of the first generation, not only by entering the political arena and thus influencing the political debate, but also by shifting from radical Islamic paradigms to a nationalist-military one.
This change was evident even in the historical composition of the Majles. The first three speakers of the Iranian parliament were three distinguished members of the clergy: Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Mehdi Karroubi, and Ali Akbar Nateq Nouri. After 2004, the position of speaker of the Majles was held by two figures who were close to the conservative clergy, but not their direct representatives: Gholam Ali Haddad Adel (2004-2008), whose daughter married Ali Khamenei's son, and Ali Larijani (2008-2020), a key figure in post-revolutionary Iran.
The eleventh Parliament was inaugurated recently on May 28, after a controversial electoral process in which more than 7,000 candidates were disqualified by the Guardian Council and the Islamic Republic registered the lowest turnout of parliament election in its history (only 42% at the national level, and 26% in Tehran). Dissatisfaction caused by the mass barring of conservative moderates, such as Ali Motahari, and reformist candidates, like the leader of the reformist front Mohammad Reza Aref, coupled with the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, discouraged many from going to the polls. The most significant result of this election has been the massive defeat of the Eight Reformist Groups Coalition, the Ettelaf-e hasht hezbe eslahtalab, which won only 20 out of 290 seats. Conversely, the reformist coalition’s failure highlighted the massive victory of the conservative front, consolidated within the broad Coalition Council of Islamic Revolution Forces (Shura-ye Ettelaf-e Niruha-ye Enqelab-e Eslami). But far from being a united coalition, the Council of Islamic Revolution Forces gathers different factions within the conservative galaxy under the same banner. One of its prominent members, General Mohammed Qalibaf, replaced Ali Larijani, becoming the first Revolutionary Guard General to be speaker of the Iranian parliament.
Qalibaf has a long political and military record. He was a former commander in the IRGC's air force, police chief, and head of the IRGC financial conglomerate Khatam ol Anbiya. He was also the Mayor of Tehran between 2005 and 2017, and he has run for president three times, losing twice (2005 and 2013) and withdrawing once in 2017. Despite being depicted as a hardliner because of his relationship with the Revolutionary Guards, Qalibaf represents a continuity with the traditional conservative and the preservation of the status quo because he favours a less ideological and more pragmatic posture.
The new composition of the Majles reflects the substantial presence of the Revolutionary Guards members, and thus Qalibaf will most likely be engaged in balancing the IRGC pressures over the economy with their factional interests in the military industrial sector. However, the different conflicting groups orbiting within the conservative galaxies that are now present in parliament mean that Qalibaf will not be in an easy position. He will also need to manage the presence of hardliners and ultraconservative members of Parliament coming from the Paydari Front, which is already pressuring the assembly to disagree with incumbent ministers. Moreover, 50 seats belong to politicians who are close to former president Ahmadinejad, who is highly opposed by the Paydari, and Ahmadinejad may be willing to run in the next presidential election.
These dynamics highlight the increasing factionalism within the conservative front, which may lead to further militarization caused by both escalating antagonism between competing factions and the strengthening of the IRGC within the political decision-making process.
The disappointing performance by the centrist-reformist candidates revealed the bitter end of the List-e Omid (Hope List), the pro-Rouhani group that won 121 seats in 2016 but today only counts a few seats. There are several reasons behind its defeat, starting with its unfulfilled promises of economic improvements, the crackdown on popular protests in November, the Guardian Council’s veto, and the betrayed results of the nuclear deal.
The Islamic Republic is facing important challenges: economic pressures from existing sanctions, management of a pandemic that is currently hitting several provinces hard and turning them into new red zones, and a new direction in domestic politics. Rouhani will finish his second term with a parliament that will likely oppose his political agenda, while the general feeling remains that of a “strategic patience:” waiting for the American elections in November 2020 and for the 2021 Iranian presidential elections, neither of which will be predictable.