Despite Election Triumph, Rouhani Still Faces Formidable Foes

Iranians vote in key elections for parliament and the Assembly of Experts in Tehran on 26 February 2016. Photo by Getty Images.
Iranians vote in key elections for parliament and the Assembly of Experts in Tehran on 26 February 2016. Photo by Getty Images.

On paper, the outcome of elections to Iran’s parliament and Assembly of Experts has led to significant gains for allies of President Hassan Rouhani, at the expense of traditional hardline incumbents. However, it is important to not overstate the impact of reformist and centrist gains. The results are promising for Rouhani, who now has a strengthened mandate to meet constituent expectations of greater economic and social reform in advance of next year’s presidential election. But Iran’s domestic arena remains a factional minefield, and Rouhani will only be able to navigate this volatile terrain through gradual, incremental consensus-based reform.

Factional politics

On one level, Iran’s elections are always surprising because of the ever-fluid and dynamic nature of factional politics in the Islamic Republic. In the absence of political parties, candidates form lists of loose political alliances. These alliances can but do not necessarily bring together contenders of similar ideological views. Lists often merge candidates with divergent political opinions and agendas. All of this results in unpredictable allegiances and the perpetuation of factional tensions that has been a longstanding facet of Iranian domestic politics.

Factional affiliations are also not guaranteed. Indeed, in this election a number of conservative parliamentarians ran under centrist and reformist associations. Some examples include Ali Larijani, the current speaker of the parliament and longstanding conservative, who supported the nuclear agreement with close ties to the Supreme Leader, ran as an independent. Kazem Jalili, a conservative who has called for harsh penalties against Green Movement leaders Mir Hossein Musavi and Mehdi Karroubi, ran as a reformist. Ali Motahari, who also ran on the reformist ticket, supports the release of Musavi and Karroubi from house arrest, but is a social and political conservative.

The results of the second round election will also have to be known before there is a clear picture of what the composition of the final parliament will look like. Fifty-nine seats will be decided in a runoff to be held in April while the remaining five seats are apportioned to religious minorities.

Rouhani’s path forward

Going forward, Rouhani can expect less parliamentary obstruction and oversight of his cabinet and privatization plans. Foreign investors too will no doubt be comforted by this popular referendum of support that could result in a more receptive business environment for international investors. Most important on the docket is gaining parliamentary consensus for the new petroleum contracts that were set to be unveiled in London at the end of February.

However, the president should expect some backlash should he push for social reform such as liberalizing women’s issues or greater press and internet freedom. In fact, steering clear of these controversial and divisive social and political issues might be the right strategy to maintain a cohesive parliamentary bloc of support.

Above all, Rouhani’s success in the next year is predicated on retaining a strong relationship with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Hardline conservatives, many of whom are close allies of the supreme leader, have been ousted from both from parliament and from the Assembly of Experts, which would elect the next supreme leader should Khamenei die during their eight-year term. The most notable ousting is of former parliamentarian Gholam Ali Haddad Adel, whose daughter is married to Khamenei’s son. In the Assembly of Experts, reformist candidates took 15 out of the 16 seats in Tehran, with former president and regime insider Hashemi Rafsanjani topping the list. Rouhani himself came in third place while hardline conservatives including Ayatollah Yazdi, the former chairman of the Assembly, and Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi, former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s longtime supporter, failed to garner enough votes. Ahmad Jannati, chairman of the Guardian Council, was the only conservative to edge in in 16th place.

The view to re-election

Conservatives are still at the helm of the Guardian Council and judiciary—two critical institutions that continue to block political reform with the support of the supreme leader. The Revolutionary Guard Corps remains as influential as ever and an important political actor in foreign policy and the economy. Support for Rouhani’s reform platform is not a guarantee. The president will have to carefully cultivate alliances to push through economic reform − the post-election priority for the rest of this year and the critical issue for his June 2017 re-election campaign.

Sanam Vakil, Associate Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme (Chatham House).

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