The hardliner’s renaissance: Iran’s pendulum politics are in full swing

The future composition of Iran’s parliament will be as expected by many: a striking majority of 75 percent of the 290 seats will be in the hands of the Principlists while Reformists only secured 7 percent. Some constituencies need a second round to determine the final outcome and a portion of roughly 12 percent of the majles goes to independents. Voter participation dropped to a historic low of 42.5 percent.

The vetting and disqualification routine of the Guardian Council, the electoral watchdog and custodian of both the Constitution and Sharia Law, should neither be seen as the main reason for the low voter turnout nor for the scathing electoral defeat of the Reformists. The latter failed to perform better in the vote because their electorate is deeply disappointed by the non-delivery of this camp in the past majles term. Even well-known Reformists like Mostafa Kavakebian and Majid Ansari, who were allowed to run, failed to obtain enough votes in Tehran. Disillusioned Reformist voters are generally unlikely to vote for Principlists — they would rather abstain, which explains the low turnout in general.

Given the multilayered crises the country is facing and the grievances in people’s everyday lives, it was clear that this round of elections would not witness the nation-wide fanfare previous elections brought. Considering the deadly November unrest, the assassination of General Qassem Soleimani, the shoot down of the Ukrainian civilian airplane and the overall economic hardship people are facing, the 42.5 percent turnout (or 25 million voters) is still quite impressive.

It is far too early to see this as a legitimacy crisis for the Islamic Republic. But it would also be foolish for the political establishment to disregard the message sent by the electorate or to put the blame of low turnout on the outbreak of the new coronavirus. Only if next year’s presidential elections see a similar turnout, and this snapshot turned into a general trend, elections in Iran would potentially lose significance.

After the disputed 2009 presidential elections and the Green Movement’s protests that followed for more than a year, nobody expected a lively electoral race only one term later in 2013. The dynamism of domestic politics in Iran should, therefore, never be underestimated.

The pendulum is swinging back

We have been here before. A reform-minded and Western-oriented government seizes power in Tehran, ensures a meaningful majority in every relevant electoral branch of the Islamic Republic’s political structure, and yet falls short of delivering on a wide range of its social, economic and political goals. And as a consequence, the opposite end of the political spectrum, the conservative Principlist faction gains political ground, seizes the momentum and re-conquers political capital it had previously lost. Such a development is hardly unique to Iran.

It was only throughout the 1990s, during the presidency of the late Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani (1989-1997), that factional politics took shape meaningfully in Iran. His successor Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005) remains until this day the leading figure of Reformists, who was then replaced by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (2005-2013) who elevated the most hardline faction of the Principlists, the Steadfast Front, to Iran’s political stage. The pendulum then swung back in 2013 with the election of current President Hassan Rouhani, a centrist figure from the heart of the Islamic Republic’s security apparatus.

Without the backing of the Reformists, Rouhani would not have been able to mobilize voters the way he did in both the 2013 and 2017 presidential elections. In fact, his reformist backers ensured a strong public mandate, while his principlist allies further deepened his backing in the system’s power centers. And there was good reason to believe this new alignment would pave the way for a new era of sustainable economic growth.

But once again, Iran’s reform-minded and Western-oriented political current committed a grave mistake: It tied domestic policy success to foreign policy accomplishments. As much as the Reformists under President Khatami needed the West to reciprocate on his call for the “dialogue among civilizations,” Rouhani was dependent on the successful implementation of the nuclear deal for his domestic policies. An enduring end to sanctions and a longer-lasting political climate of normalization would have been indispensable to vitalize and modernize Iran’s economy. Such an outcome of the accord, however, was never solely in Iran’s hands.

Once the United States left the JCPOA, president Rouhani immediately faced a huge challenge to fulfill his wide-ranging campaign promises; add to that the failure of Europe to shield European-Iranian trade from U.S. secondary sanctions. As a consequence, no argument can be won in Tehran today as to why and how the country would be better off when engaging the West.

Unsurprisingly, Rouhani’s approval rate has dropped below the 10 percent mark according to various surveys carried out inside Iran. For the Reformist camp to recover from its electoral defeat it may see itself forced to gradually distance itself from Rouhani. At the same time, this alone will not be enough. Reformists must develop a new discourse to reach a population that cares less and less for political ideology but instead looks for figures and currents that are able to tackle the economic hardship they are going through.

A weakened parliament with an important post at the top

The Principlists in parliament will now use their newly gained momentum to make life as difficult as possible for Rouhani’s government. The majles is far from being a decision-making body. But it is an important discursive realm with plenary debates being broadcast live every day.

The race for parliament speaker should be closely watched. The frontrunners from the Tehran province constituency Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf and the Steadfast Front’s Morteza Agha Tehrani could have joined forces for a joint electoral list. But they are very different in their political agendas, managerial experience and capabilities and overall worldview. A parliament headed by either of them would be of significant difference.

It is also important to bear in mind that the parliament speaker automatically obtains a seat in the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) — arguably the most important foreign policy decision making body — and in the Supreme Council for Economic Coordination (SNEC), which unlike the SNSC is a non-constitutional body composed of the three heads of the judicial, executive, and legislative branches.

The parliament itself, however, has been critically undermined recently. In November, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei ordered the majles not to dispute the decision by the SNEC to implement the fuel price hike. In similar fashion, Supreme Leader Khamenei postulated to send the government’s proposed budget for the upcoming Iranian fiscal year for approval to the Guardian Council without parliamentary consultations because such consultations and committee meetings are currently called off to combat the spread of the coronavirus.

The majlles will need time to recover from these developments, so will the Islamic Republic’s political landscape as a whole. It is beyond question that a revival of Iran’s vibrant political scene will require the emergence of new faces with a new discourse. Iran’s population will at the same time pay much more attention to concrete suggestions to steer the country out of its economic malaise and while doing so it will no longer vote along factional lines. Iran’s political elite will therefore have to develop an approach beyond the Reformist-Principlist divide.

The 11th parliamentary elections have just kicked off Iran’s new election cycle. We can expect the run-up to the next presidential elections in 2021 to be heated and much more lively given the elite acknowledges the messages sent by a politically very mature population.