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Iran’s February elections for parliament and for the Assembly of Experts — which selects the supreme leader — were the first since President Hassan Rouhani signed the nuclear deal with the United States in 2015. Rouhani is part of a reformist camp, represented in the elections as the List of Hope, oriented towards opening up the democratic process, easing sanctions, improving international relations, and opposition to the country’s powerful conservatives.
Out of thousands of candidates for the country’s 290 parliamentary seats, roughly 60 percent were disqualified by the Guardian Council before voters could even consider them. Nevertheless, reformists swept Tehran’s seats, creating a wedge against hardliners in Iran’s most populous province.
But how should the Left relate to the centrist List of Hope? Here, we speak to Peyman Jafari of the University of Amsterdam about the meaning of February’s elections, prospects for democratic reforms, and the future of the Iranian left.
Despite the hurdles thrown up in the way of Iran’s reformists, they turned out to have the better of the February elections this year. Could you tell us a little bit about what happened?
Iranian elections have tended to produce unexpected results since the early 1990s and those on February 26 didn’t disappoint. Reformists and moderate conservatives who support President Hassan Rouhani’s government made considerable gains at the expense of hardline conservatives who have opposed the nuclear deal.
Iran’s political system has many resemblances with its American counterpart, and I am not only talking about the ability of both to produce bigoted clowns like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Donald Trump. More importantly, they both have a system that filters the candidates at different stages.
In the case of the US, candidates have to go through the filter of an informal billionaire club and the structures of the Republican and Democratic parties. In the case of Iran, candidates are formally and legally filtered by the Guardian Council (which consists of six theologians appointed by the supreme leader, and six nominated by the judiciary, the head of which is also appointed by the supreme leader, then approved by parliament).
This conservative body disqualified about 60 percent of the more than five thousand candidates for parliament. Those disqualified belonged mainly to the List of Hope, which included reformists who support former president Mohammad Khatami (1997–2005) and pro-government moderate conservatives who support current president Rouhani (2013–present), so in many places the electorate could only choose from the list of the hardline conservatives.
Despite the fact that many of the well-known candidates of the reformers and the moderate conservatives were disqualified, the List of Hope won all the 30 Tehran seats in parliament, which has 290 in total.
The nasty attacks by the hardline conservatives on the reformers started to motivate the lukewarm electorate to vote and the List of Hope gained momentum when well-known figures such as former presidents Khatami and Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani came out in support.
The networks of the reformist press, activist groups, the women’s movement, and social media such as Telegram played an important role as well, particularly when well-known artists spread videos supporting the List of Hope.
Given the political weight that Tehran representatives carry in parliament, the victory of the List of Hope was a serious setback for the hardliners, who had tried to attack it as a “British list.”
As a result, the Islamic Republic of Iran’s tenth parliament will have three factions of more or less the same size: the block of reformists and pro-Rouhani conservatives, the independents, and the Principalists (who advocate loyalty to the supreme leader and to the principles of the Islamic Revolution), who won many seats in the provinces.
But it is important to note that many independents will be pulled towards the government to realize the concrete promises made to their local constituencies (building roads, hospitals, etc.). In this way, the Rouhani government has partially realized the political capital it gained with signing the nuclear deal. While the outgoing parliament was dominated by Principalists, some of whom threatened to kill the minister of foreign affairs, Javad Zarif, the new parliament will be much more supportive of the government.
The hardline conservatives also suffered a symbolic setback in the election for the Assembly of Experts, which has the right to elect the supreme leader.
During the campaign, the reformists targeted the seats of the three most conservative Ayatollahs running for the Assembly of Experts. Two of them were not elected, while the third one only managed to get the last of the sixteen seats in Tehran; the first fifteen were all won by the candidates of the List of Hope — which by the way includes some nasty figures who have been involved in the repression of students and the execution of leftist political prisoners in the 1980s (such as Mohammad Reyshahri and Ghorbanali Dorri-Najafabadi).
This was reason for some to vote for the List of Hope in the parliamentary elections but not for the Assembly of Experts. Another important aspect of the elections is that the number of women will more than double from nine to about twenty-one (the election for a number of seats has gone to a second round).
Looking ahead, the reformists in parliament will probably act very cautiously, seeing their comeback in parliament as an opportunity to rebuild their forces, and give support to Rouhani’s government. The Principalists will look for new opportunities to undermine Rouhani, but they will have less leverage than before the elections.
The elections were preceded by a heated debate among those who want to see Iran change into a more democratic and equal society about the merits of voting or boycotting the elections. Those who voted did “not necessarily believe in this charade,” as Hamid Dabashi aptly argues, “but their vote sends a clear signal to the world at large that Iranians are perfectly capable of playing chess with this crippled old nasty player, and secure a measure of political agency for themselves.”
This was also a signal to sections of the Iranian opposition in the diaspora who deny the agency of the people in Iran, and instead try to mobilize, some explicitly (e.g., the Mojahedin Khalq Organization) and others covertly, the hawks in Tel Aviv, Riyadh, and Washington to sanction or militarily attack Iran.
What does the class base of the reformist and conservative coalitions look like?
The core support of the reformists and the pro-government factions comes mainly from middle-class Iranians and the (semi-)private-sector managers who resent the business monopolies run by the Revolutionary Guards, the state, and the religious foundations.
The middle class has been mainly concerned with civic and political liberties, but the economic hardship of the past few years has pushed many into unemployment or poverty. The (semi-)private-sector managers want a bigger chunk of the domestic market, foreign export, cheap loans, subsidized imports, and state-funded projects.
The hardline conservatives have become more divided in the last years due to diverging positions vis-à-vis the nuclear deal. The Principalists are a relatively new group that emerged in 2003 around Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who was elected president in 2005 on a populist platform, but currently includes other hardliners who have fallen out with Ahmadinejad.
They have campaigned, with the support of parts of the Revolutionary Guards, very vocally against the nuclear deal, but other traditional hardliners have been critical but less vocal, falling in line with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
What role are working-class and left movements playing in Iranian politics today?
Iranians are divided along class lines. The turnout in Tehran city was 48 percent, significantly below the national 62 percent.
According to various observers, people stood in long lines to vote in the middle- and upper-class districts of Tehran, but enthusiasm was much less among those living in poorer districts for obvious reasons as one of them pointed out to a journalist: “I do not vote because nobody has done anything for me.”
Many of those who didn’t vote include workers and the urban poor who became equally disillusioned during the reformist era of economic liberalization and the populist Ahmadinejad era. Rouhani has managed to improve the economic situation, bringing down inflation, but most working-class Iranians haven’t yet benefited. Rouhani’s cabinet is strongly influenced by Iran’s Chamber of Commerce, Industries, and Mines and combines free-market policies with increased repression of labor activism.
The Rouhani government has continued privatizing state-owned companies and public services. The recent announcement of the privatization of the Modern Art Museum was only revoked after hundreds gathered in front of it in protests. In other cases, when privatization concerns companies, the state has repressed labor protests.
Under Rouhani, teachers have staged mass protest, demonstrating in seventy cities in April 2015, but they have received harsh treatment, and their leader is still in prison. During the recent tripartite negotiations about the minimum wage, the representatives of the official labor organization that has no real clout or independence were sidelined.
Some of those who didn’t vote were motivated by explicit political reasons such as distrusting the electoral process, considering the outcome of elections as irrelevant to the decision-making process, and refusing to legitimize the regime by partaking in elections. For these reasons, various organizations of the radical left in Iran, which are very weak in numbers and influence, have called for boycotting elections since the early 1980s, although with not much success.
Political activity shouldn’t be reduced to electoral politics, but by categorically dismissing the role of elections in Iran’s political life, the radical left hasn’t been able to relate to the millions with a reformist consciousness.
When millions took to the streets during the Green Movement protests following the rigged presidential elections of 2009, the majority of the radical left dismissed them as affluent northern Tehran youth or blamed them for falling short of calling for the immediate overthrow of the Islamic Republic.
This position has been the mirror image of the naive logic of those sections of the Left that have liquidated themselves in the reformist movement, viewing elections and gradual reforms as a certain path towards democracy. Both positions derive from a misunderstanding of the nature of the state, and indeed the wider post-1979 Islamist project in Iran.
The limits of this project became once again visible when recently Rouhani announced that after the nuclear deal, Iran needed a new deal, for domestic political and economic reconstruction. He received an unfriendly rebuttal from Supreme Leader Khamenei who is opposed to any form of political reform.
But the reality is that the political and economic system of the Islamic Republic is full of contradictions that will throw up new political crises, giving the grassroots opposition the opportunity to intervene and build new campaigns.
The particular conditions under the Islamic Republic, which are repressive but also allow a limited space, necessitate the construction of a new radical left that maintains its political and organizational independence but at the same time builds common activities with people who want democracy and social justice, but lack the confidence to challenge the system in its entirety.