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Iran’s 2008 Parliamentary Elections: A Triumph of the System
Over 24 million voters participated in the elections for the eighth Iranian parliament (Majlis), on March 14, 2008. Since the Islamic Revolution (1979), the Majlis has been one of the major pillars in Iranian politics. Under Iran’s system of clerical rule, ultimate power lies not with the Majlis or even the president, but with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamene’i.
While the Majlis has little influence on strategic policy making in Iran–especially with regard to foreign policy–it still enjoys a high position as the main source of legislation according to the Islamic Republic’s Constitution. Included among its major functions are drafting legislation; ratifying international treaties; approving state-of-emergency declarations; examining and approving the annual state budget; and, if necessary, even removing the president or his appointed ministers from office. In June 1981, the Majlis used its right to dismiss a president by impeaching Abol Hassan Bani-Sadr for incompetence. Using no-confidence votes, it has often made use of its right to topple ministers. For instance, it impeached President Mohammad Khatami’s Minister of Interior Abdollah Nuri, in June 1998.
The Majlis’ status and influence has varied over the years depending mainly on the interaction between itself, the executive authority, and the regime’s leadership. Despite the wide authority granted to the Majlis by the constitution, a variety of formal and informal restrictions are used to guarantee that it not jeopardize the ruling leadership or basic guiding principles of the Islamic Republic. The main restraints are provided by the Guardian Council, charged with interpreting the Iranian constitution and ensuring the compatibility of the legislation passed by the Majlis with the criteria of Islamic law (Shari’a) and the constitution.
The Guardian Council consists of 12 members: six clerics nominated by the supreme leader and six jurists nominated by the head of the judiciary (selected in turn by the supreme leader) and elected by the Majlis. In light of its composition and vast authorities, the Guardian Council has become a major means used by the ruling conservative elite to restrain and neutralize the Majlis. In addition, the council is vested with the authority to supervise elections for the Majlis, the presidency, and the Council of Experts (which supervises the supreme leader, appoints his successor, and even dismisses him if he is found incapable of fulfilling his responsibilities)–including qualifying all candidates.
Elections for the 290 members of the Majlis are held every four years. Each province in Iran is allocated a number of representatives according to the size of its population. The province of Tehran is allocated the biggest number of representatives (30). Five Majlis members represent the non-Muslim religious minorities, and they are elected by their own communities (Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians).
Although members of the Majlis are elected through personal elections, most of them are connected to one of the major factions in Iranian politics. Therefore, the Majlis serves not only as a legislature but also as a central arena for internal political struggles. During the last decade, the main political struggle in Iran–reflected by parliamentary elections as well–has been taking place between reformists and conservatives. While the conservative faction was looking to maintain the basic principles of the Islamic Revolution, the reformists have asserted since the mid-1990s, that the solution to Iran’s problems is in a deep change in Iranian political, social, and cultural systems.
Until 2000, the conservatives enjoyed a solid majority in the Majlis. In the 2000 elections, 12 conservative groups formed an alliance called The Front of the Followers of the Imam’s and Leader’s Line (Jebhe-ye Piravan-e Khat-e Imam va Rahbari) whose platform emphasized the need for improving the economic conditions rather than for political reform. On the other hand, President Khatami’s supporters formed a coalition called The 2nd Khordad (named after the Persian date of Khatami’s election victory in the presidential poll of May 23, 1997). This coalition advocated greater freedom of the press, reform of government bureaucracy, and encouraging private investment in the industry.
Participation rate was around 67 percent, a record turnout for Majlis elections in Iran. The 2nd Khordad coalition won 190 out of the 290 seats, the conservatives won around 60 seats, and the rest were identified as independent. In Tehran, the reformists led by President Khatami’s younger brother, Mohammad Reza Khatami, won almost all of the 30 seats. The results reflected the growing public support for the reformer camp, as was also evident from the reformer victories both in the presidential elections (1997) and the municipal elections (1999). Following the elections, reformer cleric Hojjat ul-Islam Mehdi Karoubi became the new speaker.
The reformer victory opened up a wide gap between the executive and legislature–dominated by reformists–and the regime’s conservative leadership. The conservatives refused to acknowledge their defeat and initiated a campaign aimed to prevent the Majlis from becoming the spearhead in implementing Khatami’s reforms.
Using the authority vested to the Guardian Council, the conservatives were determined to weaken the Majlis, neutralize its legislative authority, and restrict its influence. Legislative initiatives by the Majlis to promote a series of liberal and reformer bills, such as raising the age of minor marriages or preventing the security forces from entering universities, were encountered with conservative criticism and most of them were vetoed by the Guardian Council. An initiative in 2000 to amend the press law in order to increase freedom of speech resulted in an unprecedented intervention by the supreme leader. Stating that the bill endangered state security and the religious faith, Ayatollah Khamene’i prohibited the Majlis from continuing to debate it.
As elections for the seventh Majlis approached, the conservatives were determined to prevent the reformists from winning again. In light of growing public disappointment at the reformists’ failure to solve the economic problems and to meet their promises concerning political and cultural change, the conservatives tried to adopt a new image that would enable them to project themselves as a viable alternative. Contesting under the umbrella of The Islamic Iran Developers Coalition (E’telaf-e Abadgaran-e Iran-e Islami), the neo-conservatives put economic reform at the top of their agenda. Their emphasis on state-building and development combined with asserting the ideological values of the Islamic Republic gave them the opportunity to distinguish themselves from the traditional conservatives and to appeal to public support based on an alternate vision of reform.
Yet adopting a new image and platform was not the only strategy used by the conservatives in order to ensure their victory. The Guardian Council used its disqualification authority to ban more than 2,500 candidates–mostly reformists, including several dozen incumbent MPs. Even after a public denunciation by President Khatami and Speaker Karoubi and an appeal made by the supreme leader for the council to reconsider the rejected candidates, it refused to withdraw its decision and approved only a few hundred additional candidates.
Voter turnout was around 51 percent, higher than predicted by the reformists (some of them called for boycotting the poll) but much lower than previous elections. The conservatives won more than 160 seats while the reformists won around 40 seats. Gholam Ali Haddad-Adel, who led the Abadgaran coalition, became the new speaker.
Mahmud Ahmadinejad’s election as president in June 2005 has completed the neo-conservative takeover of Iranian elected political institutions. Although he himself was identified with the Abadgaran coalition and was supported by its members prior to the presidential elections, it was not long before his policy aroused opposition from his previous supporters. Ahmadinejad faced his first political challenge while trying to form his government. Several of his ministerial nominees, including three of his candidates for the influential oil ministry, were rejected by the Majlis for having insufficient experience.
The president’s populist approach and his failure to fulfill his electoral campaign promises to improve the Iranian people’s economic conditions brought about growing tensions within the conservative camp. Two years after his election, Ahmadinejad’s economic policy became his government’s Achilles’ heel. Not only had his policy failed to improve the economic conditions, but it even caused the economic situation to deteriorate as reflected in high inflation and unemployment rates as well as declining economic growth rates. The economic figures have provoked a wave of criticism against Ahmadinejad and his government’s policy even within the Majlis. A report concerning the state annual budget and its influence over the national economy published by the Majlis research center assessed the annual inflation rate as 23.4 percent. This rate was almost twice as high as predicted by the perennial economic program and the highest rate in over a decade.
In the last year prior to the parliamentary elections, the president faced severe criticism from senior conservative officials over his economic conduct. Former commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), Mohsen Reza’i, slammed Ahmadinejad over high inflation saying that the government’s policy of injecting huge amounts of liquidity to fund local infrastructure projects was the main cause of price increases. His criticism was echoed by conservative deputy speaker of the Majlis, Mohammad Reza Bahonar, who lashed out at the president who had once quipped that his cabinet members had to match his speed of 160 kilometers-per-hour. “Someone who drives at such speed should be more careful about his performance,” Bahonar said.
The parliamentary elections were thus held amidst growing criticism over the president’s economic policy. The electoral campaign and the electoral strategies of both conservatives and reformists were influenced to a large extent by Ahmadinejad’s government’s economic shortcomings. Just like the municipal elections in December 2007, which represented a major setback for the president’s followers, the parliamentary elections were also considered to be an indication of Ahmadinejad’s political status.
CONSERVATIVES’ DILEMMA AND ELECTORAL STRATEGY
As the elections approached, the conservatives faced a difficult dilemma concerning which political strategy to adopt. On the one hand, they had learned the lesson from their failure to form a unified list of candidates during the December 2006 municipal elections, which was one of the reasons for their relative setback. In order to increase their political prospects, they had to overcome the differences within the conservative camp–mainly between the government’s supporters and its critics. Efforts to present a unified conservative bloc could have been jeopardized by further criticism against the government. On the other hand, standing by the government’s side and expressing unambiguous support for its policy could have made the whole conservative camp responsible for the government’s shortcomings.
The conservatives were thus obliged to adopt a cautious strategy that consisted of three main components: An attempt to present a unified front backed by dominant conservative officials, including figures known to be critical of President Ahmadinejad and his policy; making a distinction between the seventh Majlis and the government through justifying some of the criticism against the government yet avoiding discrediting the government entirely; and carrying an offensive against the reformer camp aimed to present them as subjected to extreme elements within the reformer coalition.
An effort to present a joint conservative platform was reflected in a statement published by the conservatives in June 2007. It consisted of 20 articles and was intended to present the public with a broad consensus regarding the main issues. The statement stressed the need to keep adhering to Islamic principles in state management, expressed its support for the concept of “The Guardianship of the Islamic Jurist” (Velayat-e Faqih), emphasized the need to establish state and society upon justice, to promote Iran’s regional and international status, to strengthen national solidarity spirit, to struggle against poverty and corruption and to promote people’s welfare, to continue the economic privatization policy, to struggle against American hegemony and “Israeli governmental terror,” to strengthen Iran’s relations with the Muslim world and its neighbors, to maintain the unity of the conservative camp, and to act in a way that would result in its success in the forthcoming elections.
In the following months, senior conservatives emphasized the need for unity within conservative ranks. Majlis Speaker Gholam Ali Haddad-Adel said that the slightest discord among conservatives was equivalent to committing suicide. He asserted that the conservatives would not succeed in winning the elections unless they reached a consensus on a single candidate list. His deputy, Mohammad Reza Bahonar, stated at a gathering of members of the Islamic Society of Engineers from Esfahan that the return of the Osulgarayan (Principlists) to power was made possible through great effort and difficulty and they should therefore not allow differences of opinion to lead them to losing their seats and letting the reformists regain power. He went on to say that the differences of opinion and the divisions evident during the municipal elections resulted in a lesser victory for the Principlists, and the various conservative factions should therefore be brought closer together.
In an attempt to iron out their internal differences, the conservatives established several committees comprised of representatives from different conservative groups. These so-called “six-plus-five committees” were assigned the task of forming an agreed list of candidates. Following several months of discussions, the conservatives managed to form The United Front of Principlists (UFP, Jebhe-ye Mottahed-e Osulgara’i). The UFP brought together several groups representing three main new conservative factions identified to a large extent with President Ahmadinejad’s associates: The Front of the Followers of the Imam’s and Leader’s Line (Jebhe-ye Piravan-e Khat-e Imam va Rahbari), The Self-Sacrificers Association (Jam’iyat-e Ithargaran), and The Scent of Good Service faction (Rayehe-ye Khosh Khedmat). Efforts were made to convince several senior conservative figures, including President’s Ahmadinejad’s political rivals, to support the UFP. Among those figures were Ali Larijani, the supreme leader’s representative in the Supreme National Security Council, who resigned his post as the Council’s secretary in October 2007 amid reports concerning differences of opinion between him and Ahmadinejad; former Commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) Mohsen Reza’i; and Tehran Mayor Mohammad Baqer Ghalibaf, one of Ahmadinejad’s major political opponents. These efforts, however, remained largely futile. Reza’i and Ghalibaf were not persuaded to back the UFP. A few days before the elections, Larijani’s office issued a statement expressing his support for the UFP although he himself decided to avoid further controversies concerning the conservative candidate list in Tehran and to stand for the Qom constituency instead.
Furthermore, a short while before the elections, a UFP rival group emerged. Called The Broad Coalition of Principlists (E’telaf-e Faragir-e Osulgarayan), this group included several of the president’s critics. Asked why the new conservative coalition was founded, one of its cofounders, MP Mohammad Khoshchehreh, said that “opinion polls showed that people’s attitude toward Principlists was not what certain figures claimed, so we felt it was necessary to form this coalition.” Considering the coalition’s platform, he said, all Principlists had the same objectives but the problem was how their plans were implemented. The conservatives’ uniting efforts faced another blow as Iranian former minister of intelligence, Ali Fallahian, who was excluded from the UFP, announced he would run a third Principlist group.
Alongside the efforts to form a unified front, an attempt was made to lower the level of criticism from within the conservative camp against the government, which could be politically damaging to the conservatives altogether. While stressing that one of the Majlis’ responsibilities was to criticize the government, the conservatives were doing their best to avoid criticism that might damage their entire bloc. This approach was reflected in an editorial, published by the conservative daily Resalat that urged the conservatives not to remain silent in light of the “destructive attempts against the government.” Although the Principlists could criticize each other and the government, Resalat asserted, it was worth mentioning that the fate of the Principlists and the ninth government were closely integrated and that failure to support this government could mean the conservatives’ failure in forthcoming elections as well.
Despite their attempt to keep the conservative camp as united as possible, the conservative incumbent MPs also considered it necessary to distance themselves from the government in order not to be held responsible by the public for its economic failures. This strategy was reflected a few weeks before the elections when a public dispute erupted between the Majlis and the president. President Ahmadinejad refused to sign several Majlis ratifications that were intended to overturn his decisions to dissolve several institutions, including the Money and Credit Council, as well as his abolition of daylight saving time. He had complained that these ratifications concerned the executive branch rather than the legislative body and therefore contradicted the constitution.
In response, Majlis Speaker Haddad-Adel asked the supreme leader to intervene and sought his opinion. In a letter to the speaker, Khamene’i responded that all legislation that had gone through the procedures stipulated in the constitution must be respected by all branches of power. Reading aloud the leader’s letter at the Majlis session, Haddad-Adel said that he was surprised by the president’s stance. He noted that it was only the Guardians Council’s prerogative to decide whether legislation was in accordance with the constitution and said that he had already given an order to include the bills in the official statute book despite the president’s refusal to sign them.
Another component of conservative strategy was to try to discredit the reformists. In light of reformer attempts to present a moderate and realistic image, the conservatives were trying to present the reformer coalition as being held hostage by extreme and liberal factions. An editorial published by hardline Iranian daily Javan, for instance, suggested that the radical factions of the 2nd Khordad Front were hiding behind the moderate figures of the reformer camp and that the moderate reformists were actually managed by “extremist tendencies.” The people had to be told, the daily wrote, that the extremist elements in the guise of moderates were trying to restore their political fortunes.
President Bush’s radio address prior to his visit to the Middle East in January 2008, in which he expressed his support for “democrats and reformists from Beirut and Baghdad to Damascus and Tehran,” was immediately seized on by the conservatives to discredit their political rivals. Ayatollah Khamene’i reacted angrily to President Bush’s declaration saying that American support for anyone in Iran was a disgrace and that they should question why America wanted to support them.
Hossein Shariatmadari, editor of the hardline Keyhan was even more explicit. In an editorial entitled “Why Should It Not Provide Support?,” Shariatmadari wrote that even reformists’ reactions following President Bush’s address denying U.S. support for them did not hide broad American support for the reformer front. Considering the reformists’ statements and actions–which are coordinated with American views and intentions, such as calling for the suspension of uranium enrichment, casting doubt over the purity of the forthcoming elections, and even calling for international observation of elections–the question is not why the United States openly and officially supports the reformists, but rather why shouldn’t the Americans and their allies provide their support. The reformists should reconsider their standpoints and policies as they cannot simultaneously express President Bush’s rhetoric in their political paces and denounce the American support given to them.
The conservatives were also trying to draw public attention from the economic issue to other issues in which the reformists were considered to enjoy less public support, such as foreign policy. Conservative senior MP Elias Naderan, for example, accused the reformists of accepting a compromise over Iran’s nuclear rights. In a session held by the women’s section of the UFP, Naderan criticized the reformer MPs for imposing pressure on the Iranian nuclear negotiating team during the term of the sixth Majlis and urging them to agree to Western demands concerning the Iranian nuclear program, which contradicted Iranian national interests.
REFORMER STRATEGY AND CONCERNS
Four years after losing their dominance in the Majlis and almost three years after losing their hold over the executive, the elections for the eighth Majlis were considered by the reformer camp as a golden opportunity to regain at least some of their previous political power. Following their major electoral setbacks, the reformists had gone through a process of self-criticism, which was evident in the strategy they adopted during the 2008 election campaign.
As a lesson from their relative success at the December 2006 municipal elections, the reformists were also making efforts to form a unified list of candidates. The main obstacle toward forming such a list was the controversy between the National Trust Party (Hezb-e E’temad-e Melli), led by Mehdi Karoubi, and several groups that were part of the 2nd Khordad coalition. A few months before the elections, the Fars News Agency revealed the content of a letter sent by National Trust Party Spokesman Isma’il Garami-Moqaddam to Mohsen Mirdamadi, secretary-general of the Participation (Mosharekat) Party, one of the major groups within the reformer coalition. In this letter Garami-Moqaddam criticized the “extremist tendencies” characterized by the Participation Party as well as by the Mujahidin of the Islamic Revolution Organization, another reformer faction. He even held those groups responsible for past reformer political defeats and for the grim situation faced by the reformists.
Karoubi himself criticized his fellow reformists. In an exclusive interview with Newsweek, he called former President Khatami a weak political leader and said his allies were extremists “who questioned the Islamic component of the Islamic Republic.” Those accusations were used by the conservatives in order to support their claim that the reformer coalition continued to represent radical tendencies acknowledged even by the moderate reformists themselves. The division among reformists led to the National Trust Party’s decision to take part in the elections under an independent banner and platform, although almost half of the candidates in both the National Trust Party and the Reformer Coalition lists were the same. Another reformer list representing The Popular Coalition of Reformists (E’telaf-e Mardomi-ye Eslahtalaban) was led by Fatemeh Karoubi, wife of Mehdi Karoubi.
Another component in reformer strategy was an attempt to recruit the support of senior reformer figures in order to expand the public support given to reformer candidates and to strengthen the reformer coalition image as moderate, pragmatic, and responsible. This image was necessary in order to attract votes from among the more conservative elements of the Iranian public, who still regarded the reformer platform’s adherence to political reforms and civil rights as constituting a potential threat to the basic values of the Islamic Revolution. The most important senior official recruited by the reformists was former President Mohammad Khatami, who was still thought to enjoy broad public support. Khatami refused the attempts to persuade him to be a candidate in the elections, but agreed to use his public status in order to promote the reformer electoral campaign. Several months before the elections, the reformists even implemented a strategy of sending Khatami on provincial trips with the aim of attracting more votes.
The most significant strategy used by the reformists was to place the economic issue at the top of their agenda. Drawing conclusions from their past defeats, the reformists had realized that the economic problems were the main issue that occupied the Iranian people’s minds and that the past achievements of the new conservatives were made possible to a great extent due to their use of economic and social slogans and their promises to improve economic conditions in Iran. Emphasizing the economic issue over political reforms was evident throughout the election campaign. This strategy was reflected by Shams Aldin Vahabi, chairman of the Participation Party’s Electoral Bureau. Vahabi was quoted by the Norooz reformer website saying that according to public surveys carried out by his party, most of the public concerns focused on socioeconomic issues and most of the people favored economic reforms over political reforms. The two major problems raised by the public were inflation and the housing crisis. The economic issue would thus be placed on top of the agenda of the next Majlis, which should be dominated by MPs capable of supervising the government’s economic policy.
In order to win public support, the reformists exploited the government’s economic shortcomings in every possible way. While the conservatives tried to make a distinction between the government’s policy and the Majlis’ conduct, the reformists were trying to present both organs–which were dominated by the conservatives–as responsible for the deteriorating economic conditions. Aware of the growing criticism with regard to the president’s economic policy, reformists referred to the elections as a referendum on the government’s policy. This strategy was reflected by senior reformer activist Ebrahim Asgharzadeh who said in an interview to reformer Aftab-e Yazd daily that without the Majlis’ support, silence, or passivity, Ahmadinejad’s policy could not have been fully implemented. The forthcoming elections were therefore a referendum for the conservatives and especially for the government’s policy.
Following a UFP statement emphasizing the need to control inflation and to improve the people’s living conditions, the reformists launched an offensive against the conservatives accusing them of using old slogans in order to disguise their failures. Rasoul Montakheb-Nia, a member of the National Trust Party’s Central Council, was quoted by the Sarmayeh economic daily as saying that four years after the conservatives took over the Majlis and more than two years after they took over the presidency, it had become obvious that their economic slogans and promises were not fulfilled and could no longer be accepted. The conservatives, he added, had proven that they were incapable of restraining the inflation and both the government and the Majlis were to blame for this failure.
The reformer press joined the efforts to criticize the conservatives’ economic management. An editorial by Abbas Pazouki in the Mardom Salari reformer daily entitled “Principlists and the Inefficiency Crisis” asserted that if the Iranian people voted for adherents of Principleism, it would mean that they were happy with their situation and had no problems with housing, marriage, employment, inflation, and the high cost of living. Yet if the “rules of the game” were observed, the daily said, then “those who were sitting on the other side of the table” (the conservatives) would have to leave and return their seats to the reformists.
Following the mass disqualifications of reformer candidates by the Guardian Council before the 2004 parliamentary elections, the reformists expressed their concern over the possibility that their candidates would again be disqualified. Their concern increased after Council Spokesman Abbas Ali Kadkhoda’i stated that the council would not allow ineligible individuals to enter the Majlis. Several months prior to the elections, Kadkhoda’i stated that the pre-election vetting of candidates would be carried out with the utmost precision, based on existing evidence and records, and that the council would not allow those candidates who did not deserve to become MPs to make it into the Majlis.
Reflecting growing concern of the reformists, former Presidents Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami urged the authorities to organize free and fair elections. “The way to strengthen the system in the face of external enemy threats and [to] prevent… [internal] divisions is to organize free and fair elections,” Rafsanjani said in comments reported by the press. “I hope that the political climate will be healthy so we can take part in elections as much as the law allows,” he added. In a speech in the northern town of Tabriz, former President Khatami also appeared to criticize the Guardian Council’s vetting process. “A strong participation by the electorate will allow us to reduce or prevent the narrow-mindedness of some,” he said. “The organizers of elections have heavy responsibilities: Respecting the political climate and allowing competition between the candidates.”
Another concern shared by the reformists considered the possible involvement in the political process in favor of the conservatives by the Iranian Armed Forces and especially the IRGC. Despite the ban of the leader of the Islamic Revolution Ayatollah Khomeini on the Armed Forces’ involvement in political affairs, such involvement by the IRGC in favor of the conservative faction has been evident for years. Following the July 1999 student riots, for example, 24 IRGC senior commanders sent a letter to President Khatami stating that they would take the law into their own hands in order to protect the revolution, unless the president cracked down on demonstrators. It thus became evident that the IRGC was opposing the reform movement and that it would even take action, if necessary, to uphold the interests of the Islamic regime.
Prior to the elections, in an interview with the conservative Rasa News Agency, Hojjat ul-Islam Ali Sa’idi, representative of the supreme leader in the IRGC, said that even though the IRGC would not support or act in favor of any specific party, political group, or candidate, it would be sensitive with regard to events concerning the revolution and its future. Sa’idi stated that while the Armed Forces should not raise the flag of any specific party, it could advocate lofty criteria according to which candidates should be elected.
The IRGC commander in Ghazvin was even more explicit when he urged his audience during a ceremony to ensure that a Majlis like the sixth Majlis (in which the reformists held a majority) would not be reelected. He said that the elections should reflect the criteria determined by Ayatollah Khomeini and the supreme leader and that the Majlis should be deposited in the hands of pious and proper people and not unworthy candidates who might “pollute” it. Joint Chief of Staff General Hassan Firouzabadi of the Iranian military also made reference to the political developments. He described Ahmadinejad as a “responsible, honest role model” and harshly attacked dozens of former reformer MPs from the sixth Majlis as “a bunch of people manipulated and employed by the West, who write letters to the supreme leader asking him to surrender to Bush and who staged a sit-in in the Majlis.” Firouzabadi called on the public “not to vote for manipulated individuals” and not to allow individuals who move towards the United States and the West to enter the Majlis.
IRGC interference in the elections reached its peak in the support reflected by IRGC commander Mohammad Ali Ja’fari in favor of the conservatives. At a conference of student members of the Basij (IRGC volunteer-based paramilitary force) in Tehran, Ja’fari stated that supporting the Principlists was necessary and was even considered a divine duty for all revolutionary forces in Iran. He called on the Basij members to strengthen and promote the Principlists. Basij members, he said, had to support the Principlist trend, which had been revived after 27 years and had taken over the executive and the legislature.
Interference of the Armed Forces prior to the elections had become so evident that it even aroused the criticism of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s grandson. In a rare public statement, Hojjat ul-Islam Hassan Khomeini said in an interview with the Shahrvand-e Emrooz weekly that his late grandfather had wanted the military to stay out of politics. Those who claim to be loyal to the imam, he said, should be very sensitive to his order concerning the presence of the military in politics.
Over 7,500 candidates, including almost 600 women, registered for the elections. Reformists’ concerns regarding the vetting process began to be realized when about 3,000 prospective candidates, most of them reformists, were disqualified by the Interior Ministry Executive Electoral Committees. These committees were tasked with screening the candidates by gathering information from the police, intelligence ministry, the judiciary, and by making local inquiries. According to Abdollah Naseri, the reformer coalition spokesman, more than 50 percent of the coalition’s candidates were disqualified throughout the country. Practically all candidates of the Iranian Islamic Participation Front and the Organization of the Islamic Revolution’s Mujahidins were rejected. Seventy percent of the National Confidence party candidates were also rejected. Among those disqualified were also incumbent reformer MPs, past cabinet ministers, reformists who had served as MPs at the sixth Majlis, and high ranking officials.
The Interior Ministry executive committee’s decision to disqualify most reformer candidates provoked widespread condemnations. The Islamic Participation Front published a statement saying that the extent of rejections was unprecedented and that Ahmadinejad’s government proved that not only was it incapable of administrating the country properly, but also of organizing fair and just elections. Abdollah Naseri told the Mehr News Agency that the reformer coalition held talks with a number of high-ranking officials to seek their support in order to endorse the candidacy of disqualified hopefuls. Former President Khatami labeled the mass disqualification as a “catastrophe” threatening the Islamic Revolution. The trend of disqualifications, he said, jeopardized the revolution, the system, and the credibility and best interests of society. Khatami also held discussions with Rafsanjani and Karoubi aimed at deciding upon a strategy that would avoid sweeping disqualification by the Guardian Council. The three senior political figures decided to hold consultations with all concerned bodies and officials, including the supreme leader and members of the Guardian Council, to express their concerns regarding the vetting of candidates and to allow banned reformer and moderate conservative candidates to stand in the polls. The trio also decided, however, that all parties should be encouraged to participate actively in the elections under any circumstances.
The disqualification process even raised the objection of some conservative figures. Ahmad Tavakoli, a leading conservative MP and chairman of the Majlis Strategic Research Center, even wrote an open letter to the Guardian Council criticizing the number of disqualifications and urging it to broaden the circle of qualified candidates. Tavakoli pointed out that the extent of the disqualifications had led to concern among “friends and supporters of the Islamic Revolution” and warned that massive disqualification of Majlis hopefuls would lead to a low voter turnout.
Following the criticism over mass disqualifications, the Guardian Council finally announced that it had reinstated more than 1,000 candidates who had been disqualified earlier by the Interior Ministry executive committees and the Guardian Council supervisory committee. A total of 4,600 parliamentary hopefuls were allowed to run. Reformer coalition Spokesman Abdollah Naseri, however, dismissed as “propaganda” claims by some Iranian media outlets that the scene was now set for competitive elections.
The decision to disqualify most of their candidates had brought the reformists to scale down their expectations for the elections. Reformer senior activist Mohammad Salamati said that the reformists could run for only 70 to 80 seats in the Majlis because the composition of at least 200 seats was fixed in advance in favor of the conservatives. A week prior to the elections, the reformists announced that they would not present candidate lists in Esfahan and Tabriz, as most of the reformer candidates in those constituencies had been disqualified.
In response to the mass banning of candidates, Mohammad Reza Aref, former first vice-president in the Khatami government who was supposed to lead the reformer list in the Tehran constituency, decided to pull out of the election race. The reformer coalition declared that mass vetoing of candidates was the reason behind his decision. Shortly afterwards, three other candidates allowed to participate in the elections also announced their decision to drop out. Among those was Ayatollah Khomeini’s grandson, Ali Eshraqhi, who was initially disqualified by the Interior Ministry executive committees but later approved by the supervisory committee appointed by the Guardian Council. His sister, Zohra Eshraghi, told reporters that her brother’s decision to quit the electoral race was the result of harsh personal insults following his criticism against mass disqualifications. Former Head of the Iranian Organization for Atomic Energy Reza Amrollahi and reformer activist Fatemeh Tondguyan also announced their dropping out.
Despite the disqualification process, however, reformists were decisive in their decision to participate in the elections. In a statement released three weeks prior to the elections, the reformer coalition declared that it was determined to contest the elections. Pointing to the importance of the upcoming elections, it stated that despite the fact that the coalition was short of candidates, since so many were not allowed to participate in the elections, it would participate in all constituencies where it had nominees. Former President Khatami also urged reformists to contest seriously the elections, even though they could not compete in “most of the constituencies.” He expressed that reformists should not miss out on the opportunity, no matter how small.
After facing some difficulties to come up with a complete 30-candidate list in Tehran, the reformer coalition finally managed to present its final list. It was headed by one of Khatami’s former vice-presidents, Majid Ansari; former Minister of Industries and Mines Eshaq Jahangiri; and former Deputy Foreign Minister Mohammad Sadr.
Conservative candidate lists were also presented about a week prior to the elections. The UFP 30-candidate list in Tehran was led by Majlis Speaker Haddad Adel. Last efforts to present a unified conservative list failed and the Broad Coalition of Principlists presented its own 30-candidate list as well. This coalition, however, also put Haddad Adel on top of its list and one-third of conservative candidates were common to both lists.
ELECTION RESULTS AND ANALYSIS
Voter Turnout and Main Results
Voter turnout in the first round of elections, as reported by the Iranian Interior Ministry, was about 60 percent; however, actual turnout seemed to be lower. Although less than the turnout reached at the elections for the sixth Majlis, it was much higher than that of previous elections. The percentage of voter turnout could be viewed by the authorities as an achievement, especially considering the fact that the elections took place during the course of final preparations for the Iranian new year (Norooz) and in light of new restrictions on election propaganda–including a ban on posters or placards in public areas. Turnout in Tehran was lower and reached only 40 percent. Turnout in the second round of elections, held on April 25, 2008, was much lower and was only around 25 percent.
Conservatives won an expected victory, taking more than 200 seats divided between the two conservative lists. Reformists succeeded to hold on to their respectable minority in the seventh Majlis, winning over 50 seats–more than half of them went to the main reformer coalition and the rest to the E’temad-e Melli party’s candidates. Independent candidates won about 40 seats.
In Tehran the conservatives won 29 out of 30 seats. Seventh Majlis Speaker Haddad Adel became the front-runner in Tehran while only one reformer candidate made it to the top 30 places allocated for the Tehran constituency.
Ali Larijani was elected with over 75 percent of the vote from Qom, opening the way for a political race against Haddad Adel over the Majlis’ chairmanship, which Larijani would win.
Despite the conservatives overwhelming victory, both political factions presented the results as an achievement. Conservative officials and press stressed the solid majority won by their candidates while disregarding the internal divisions in the conservative bloc. Reformer figures hailed their performance in the elections as a “remarkable success,” emphasizing the fact that they maintained their political position despite the difficult conditions they faced following the banning of most of their candidates. “Taking into account the situation of the country and the restrictions… we managed a remarkable success,” said the spokesman of the reformer coalition, Abdollah Naseri. In an editorial published by the reformer daily E’temad-e Melli, it was written that the next Majlis was likely to become more pluralist considering the large impact of reformer and independent MPs and the fragility of the conservatives. With more than 40 conservative elected MPs associated with the Broad Coalition of Principlists identified with the government’s critics, the daily asserted, implementing the plans of the UFP could be prevented.
Similar to previous elections campaigns in Iran, various complaints concerning the method of counting votes and results followed the elections. Reformists claimed, for example, that their observers were denied access to voting stations and that the Interior Ministry did not allow the presence of journalists not associated with the government in the central election headquarters during the counting of votes.
The Reformer Predicament
The election results clearly demonstrated the serious predicament of the Iranian reformer movement. The reformists succeeded in maintaining the political position they held in the seventh Majlis. Given the barring of most of their candidates, they actually did better than might have been expected. Their relative success, nonetheless, cannot hide the fact that they had failed to restore the position they enjoyed less than a decade ago and that their chances to do so in the near future seem slim. The conservatives’ success in neutralizing the reformists; the disappointment of Iranian voters concerning their past inability to implement their vision; their inner divisions; and their inability to come up with a clear, practical alternative capable of providing real solutions to the country’s problems make the reformists irrelevant to a large extent.
Their grave situation was clearly reflected in an exclusive interview given by political analyst Sadegh Zibakalam to the reformer website, Rooz. Zibakalam said that even if a miracle happened and every single reformer candidate was qualified to run for a seat, and even if 100 or 200 reformer candidates won seats in the eighth Majlis, the reformists could not do more than what was done in the sixth Majlis. Reformists, he said, lacked a coherent, orderly, and realistic program to push reforms through the system. They were not seriously engaged in a process of self-criticism following the eight-year term of President Khatami and they refrained from asking themselves what they had done wrong.
President Ahmadinejad’s rise to power might have given the impression that Iranian politics was going through a process of radicalization. The parliamentary elections campaign, however, represented a different reality. Religious and revolutionary slogans–once the staple of conservative campaigns–were neglected. Instead, the conservatives adopted a more pragmatic language focusing on the need to deal with Iran’s economic difficulties and to promote economic development and reconstruction.
Reformists had also gone through a process of pragmatization and centralization. The reformer political vision–which concentrated during the late 1990s on the need to promote democratization, civil society, and human rights–faded in light of the socioeconomic agenda. This centralization process is likely to bring the reformists and the moderate-conservatives closer together and might narrow the ideological gaps between former political rivals.
It’s All About the Economy, Stupid!
Parliamentary elections had shown very clearly that the economy had become the major issue on the Iranian political agenda. Each of the political groups had placed this issue at the top of the agenda. Both the reformists and the conservatives explicitly cited the fight against inflation as the central aspect of their election campaign.
That does not necessarily mean that either the reformists or the conservatives hold a clear and effective plan capable of solving the economic crisis. It does, however, represent the obvious preference given by most Iranians to socioeconomic issues over other issues, including foreign policy and political reforms.
A Warning Sign for Ahmadinejad?
Parliamentary elections were considered a barometer for President Ahmadinejad’s popularity by most observers. In light of the election results it seems likely that Ahmadinejad should expect more challenges both from within the reformists as well as from his opponents among the pragmatic conservatives who seemed to increase their political position in the Majlis. Furthermore, the pragmatic conservatism associated with several of his political rivals, such as Ali Larijani or Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, might also increase the challenge to Ahmadinejad in preparation for the upcoming 2008 presidential elections. The results, however, do not represent a major setback to the president’s position and should not be necessarily be regarded as a warning sign to him for the upcoming presidential elections. Ahmadinejad is likely to face growing criticism against his populist economic policy as well as against his provocative public statements. It seems, however, that he still enjoys considerable public support, mainly among the lower strata of Iranian society, and that his political rivals still have to prove their popularity. It is, therefore, too early to predict the prospects for his re-election.
The “Secularization” of the Iranian Political System
While in the first Majlis clerics exceeded non-clerics by a small margin, the number of clerical deputies fell to 87 in the third Majlis, 67 in the fourth, 53 in the fifth, 35 in the sixth, and rose slightly, to 41, in the seventh Majlis. According to partial election results, the number of clerics elected to the eighth Majlis was a little more than 30, the lowest since the revolution. The small percentage of clerics included in all political lists, including that of the conservative coalition, was clearly enough to arouse the criticism of the Jomhuri-ye Eslami daily, associated with the traditional conservative establishment. “The higher the presence of clerics in the Majlis …,” its editorial asserted, “the better the continuity of the Revolution and the Islamic Republic’s regime is guaranteed.” Parliamentary elections thus reflected the ongoing process of the diminishing clerical presence in Iranian politics and their replacement by an increasing number of technocrats–prominent figures including former members of the Iranian Armed Forces and Revolutionary Guards. As explicitly described by Dilip Hiro, more and more voters realized over the years that the clerical politicians were no better than their non-clerical counterparts.
The Gender Perspective
Women’s representation in the next Majlis will be the lowest since the third Majlis (1988-1992). Only eight women were elected this time in comparison to four women in the first, second, and third Majlis; nine in the fourth Majlis; 14 in the fifth and sixth Majlis sessions; and 13 in the seventh. Those women elected to the new Majlis are all conservative. Candidate lists for the Tehran constituency included a handful of women. Even the reformists included only six women on its 30-candidate list. Despite women’s ongoing campaign to improve their status in the Islamic Republic, Iranian legislature continues to be dominated by men. Zahra Shoja’i, head of the reformer women’s association, responded to the decline in women’s representation by saying that it was not surprising in light of the weakness of women legislators in the seventh Majlis and conservative women MPs’ support for discriminatory bills against women.
Another Indication for Regime Stability?
This latest election campaign may serve as another indication of the maturity and vitality of the Iranian political system. The elections for the eighth Majlis was the twenty-ninth election campaign held since the Islamic Revolution.
The Islamic regime has been facing ideological, political, and social challenges since the 1990s. These challenges could eventually endanger its stability. It seems, however, that the Iranian regime has so far succeeded to balance and control those challenges. Those hoping to topple the allegedly unstable regime and to bring about a change should therefore think twice. It seems that the 2008 parliamentary elections represent a desire for stability more than a desire for an additional revolutionary upheaval.
* Raz Zimmt is a research fellow at the Center for Iranian Studies and a PhD candidate at the Graduate School of Historical Studies at Tel Aviv University.
 Wilfried Buchta, Who Rules Iran? The Structure of Power in the Islamic Republic (Washington, D.C.: Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 2000), p. 58.
 Dilip Hiro, The Iranian Labyrinth: Journeys Through Theocratic Iran and Its Furies (New York: Nation Books, 2005), pp. 50-51.
 Anoushiravan Ehteshami and Mahjoob Zweiri, Iran and the Rise of Its Neoconservatives (London: I.B. Tauris, 2007), pp. 40-41.
 Ali Gheissari and Vali Nasr, Democracy in Iran: History and the Quest for Liberty (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), p. 142.
 The center was established in 1993 to offer consulting and support services to the MPs and the Majlis committees. It consists of MPs and professional advisors and was headed by conservative MP Ahmad Tavakoli from 2004-2008.
 It should be noted that in the 2005 presidential elections Mohammad Baqer Ghalibaf came in fifth with less than 14 percent of the votes, and Ali Larijani came in sixth with less than six percent of the votes. Mohsen Reza’i withdrew from the race shortly before the elections.
 Figures taken from an editorial published in Jomhuri-ye Eslami, February 26, 2008.