AIC Iran Brief: The 2016 Elections in Iran

AIC Iran Brief: The 2016 Elections in Iran

By Bradford Van Arnum, AIC Research Associate


In the middle of March, Iran’s Interior Ministry announced that runoff elections for nearly 70 parliament seats would occur on April 29. The first round of voting had taken place on February 26, when Iran held elections for both its parliament and Assembly of Experts. The former is a 290-member body that is elected every four years, while the latter is the group responsible for choosing a new Supreme Leader when a vacancy arises. The elections for the two institutions, both of which have been dominated by conservatives in recent years, were seen as key tests of President Rouhani’s time in office, and in particular, a referendum on the nuclear accord that was signed in July 2015.

One of the most visible issues in the weeks and months leading up to the elections was the mass disqualification of potential candidates by the Guardian Council, the body that vets those seeking public office and also reviews legislation passed by parliament. Starting in January, it became clear that thousands would be disqualified from running, most notably Hassan Khomeini, the grandson of Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic. About 12,000 candidates registered to run for parliament, and more than half were disqualified, many of them reformists or moderates. Despite these setbacks, reformists stressed the need for high turnout, and decided not to boycott the parliamentary elections as they had done in 2012, ultimately to the benefit of conservatives. Official campaigning for the elections took place in the week prior to February 26th, with leading figures such as Rouhani and Supreme Leader Khamenei stressing the importance of high turnout. On the day of the elections, voter turnout was about 58% and voting hours were extended multiple times to a total of almost six hours.

Parliament Results

It became apparent within days after the election that in parliament, reformists and moderates had made a strong showing, especially in light of the challenges that their candidates faced from the Guardian Council. For instance, in Iran’s capital, Tehran, all 30 of the candidates on the Rouhani-aligned “List of Hope” won parliamentary seats, a significant victory in Iran’s largest electoral district. Particularly symbolic was the first place finish in Tehran of reformist Mohammad Reza Aref, who ran for president in 2013 (but dropped out to help consolidate support for Rouhani) and who served as a vice president under former President Khatami, also a reformist. The defeat in Tehran of the influential conservative, Gholam-Ali Haddad Adel (who finished 31st in the district) came as another boost to moderates, though elsewhere in the country, conservative candidates achieved significant victories.

Because strong political parties are absent in Iran, it is difficult to determine what the exact partisan breakdown of Iran’s new parliament will be when it convenes. The fact that almost two-thirds of those who won election to parliament will be new to the institution also makes it harder to classify some of the incoming members, whose political backgrounds might be less well-defined. Further complicating any precise estimates, political ideology is fluid in Iran, meaning that self-identified moderates might support Rouhani on economic matters, but not on social or security concerns (a similar phenomenon was seen with the support Rouhani received from Ali Larijani, the conservative Speaker of Parliament, on the nuclear issue last year). One estimate suggests that reformist or moderate candidates will control from 80 to 90 seats in the next parliament, while conservatives might control a similar number. Independents will have about 60 seats, and the runoffs in late April will determine another 69 seats. These figures point to the possibility that no single faction will control the next parliament, a situation that could lead to political stalemate, as laws require a two-thirds majority to pass.

One certainty is that at least 13 women will hold seats in the next parliament; whereas just nine women serve in the current parliament, and the runoffs could add six more women. The political beliefs of the new female members will also set them apart; most of the current female members are conservatives, while eight of the women who won election were backed by reformists.

Assembly of Experts Results

Whereas the results for parliament remain somewhat unsettled, those for the Assembly of Experts are more straightforward. This body, comprised of 88 members and currently dominated by conservatives, witnessed the electoral success of dozens of moderates, who will constitute 59% of the next assembly (up from their present 23%). Former President Rafsanjani, a supporter of Rouhani whose political standing has waxed and waned over the years, not only came in first place in Tehran, but won the largest number of votes among all the candidates running for either the assembly or parliament. President Rouhani himself had a strong performance, coming in third place in Tehran. At the same time, two influential conservatives lost their seats within the assembly; one of them, Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi, was the current chief of the Assembly of Experts. The other, Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Mesbah Yazdi, had been a mentor and supporter of former President Ahmadinejad, a hardliner.

Given that the assembly is only elected every eight years, many expect that it will serve an important function in the near future due to Supreme Leader Khamenei’s age and health. However, the assembly is somewhat of an untested institution that has seen only one succession of a supreme leader; as discussed in the next section, it may play a less significant role than would seem to be the case at first glance.

Implications of the Elections

Although Rouhani is not up for reelection for a little over a year, the results of the February elections indicate that there remains support for the president’s policies, even if that support is not evenly distributed across Iran by class and region. Although reformists and moderates can claim success in winning every parliamentary seat in Tehran and in bringing the composition of the next parliament closer to equilibrium, it remains to be seen to what extent the election will reshape the governing system, if at all. If the new parliament is able to advance more of President Rouhani’s agenda, particularly in the realm of social and political freedom, his administration may find itself in a strong position for reelection next year. If, on the other hand, the new parliament becomes beholden by gridlock, enthusiasm for reformist and moderate politicians may dampen, resulting in lower turnout next year among Rouhani’s potential supporters.

There is reason to believe that in the near future the status quo will prevail in Iran, for it is the country’s unelected institutions, such as the judiciary, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and most visibly, the Supreme Leader himself, that determine the country’s course. Although the Iranian parliament plays an important role in some areas of national policy, such as budgetary matters, it is nonetheless a body whose influence can be rather limited. As for the Assembly of Experts, not only will its conservative members remain a determined opposition despite their diminished numbers, but the body’s role in choosing the next Supreme Leader may be more ceremonial than substantive; in the late 1980s, following the death of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini, it was arguably the influence of key individuals (such as Rafsanjani) rather than the Assembly of Experts that helped arrive at the current leader as the appointed successor. This fact raises the question of how decisive the assembly will truly be in selecting the next Supreme Leader whenever Khamenei needs to be replaced.

Despite the limits and shortcomings of the electoral process, Iran’s most recent elections demonstrate that the Iranian population remains generally supportive of reform and of their president. Indeed, while the Rouhani administration may face less opposition from the incoming parliament, the expectations have now been raised for him to move fully beyond the nuclear issue. Although the incoming parliament might work more cooperatively with Rouhani to pursue greater diplomatic opening and increased foreign trade, there are numerous other issues that may remain beyond the scope of Rouhani’s power. For instance, acting decisively on calls for improved human rights and more social freedoms would pit Rouhani against Iran’s unelected institutions, a confrontation that could lose him the tacit (if tenuous) support of the Supreme Leader. Just as he has done with the nuclear accord in the months since its completion, Rouhani must manage expectations moving forward, conveying to the people the limits of his authority but nonetheless seeking to improve the everyday lives of Iranians in ways that have so far proven elusive.