Election Fever Rises in Tehran

Tehran is all abuzz over the upcoming elections to the Majlis (parliament) on February 26th and the elections to the Assembly of Experts on February 25th.

In the past, these elections garnered less interest than the presidential elections but the 2016 elections for both bodies have taken on a much larger political meaning as a result of the growing rift between the Reformists/moderates headed by President Hassan Rouhani and the Principlists/conservatives headed by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei himself.

Rouhani is betting all of his political power into translating the support that Iranian voters gave him to change the status quo in foreign relations, the nuclear file, the economy and human rights under Ahmadinejad into more power in the Majlis and in the Assembly of Experts.

Khamenei, on the other hand, had begrudgingly accepted the will and the hopes of the Iranian people in electing Rouhani for president and even voiced his support for Rouhani for over two and half years but has since demoted Rouhani by taking over the implementation of the JCPoA and the foreign relations file.

Both elections are crucial for Rouhani and Khamenei because they will determine whether Rouhani’s call for change will gain a second wind or will deflate under the weight of the hardliner regime.


The Majlis Elections

The big issue regarding the elections to the Majlis is the balance of power between the Reformists and the Principlists in the 290 seat parliament.

The 2008 Majlis elections resulted in 195 seats (67%) for Principlists, 51 seats (18%) for Reformists, 39 seats (13%) for Independents and 5 seats (2%) for Others.

This parliamentary election was followed by the heavily contested presidential elections in 2009 which led to Mahmud Ahmadinejad’s presidency. The protests by Ahmadinejad’s political opponents, members of the Reformist Green Movement, resulted in riots and a crackdown leading to massive imprisonments for Iranian Reformists and house arrests for their leaders, Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi.

As a result, the current Majlis elected in 2012, has no real representation of Reformists since a) most Reformist candidates were disqualified by the Guardian Council which chooses which candidates can or cannot run for parliament and b) the Reformists decided to boycott the elections as a group. The results exemplified the misfortunes of the Reformists: the Principlists garnered 167 seats (58%) while the Reformists received only 26 seats (9%) with the rest of the seats split between the Independents (88 seats = 30) and Others (9 seats = 3%).

In contrast, the polls leading to the 2016 Majlis elections point to a massive strengthening of the Reformists in parliament: 133-145 seats (46%-50%) to Reformists and 122-125 seats (42%-43%) to the Principlists.

The possibility that the long-silenced Reformists may reach a majority in the Majlis threatens the power of the hardliners and the regime to the core: Islamic Revolutionary ideals will have to give way to more moderate views and the hardline regime, with Khamenei and the IRGC at its core, will undoubtedly fight to maintain its power.


The Assembly of Experts Elections

Unlike the Majlis members who are tasked with creating a wide variety of laws, the Assembly of Experts has a much more focused task: Its sole raison d’etre is to elect, remove and supervise the Supreme Leader in Iran. The scope of the power of the 88 men manning the Assembly of Experts is open to discussion since the relationship between the Assembly of Experts and their Supreme Leader is filled with ambiguous power plays.

The last elections for the Assembly of Experts took place in 2006 with the Principlists winning 59 seats (67%) and the Reformists winning only 29 seats (33%). Furthermore, the head of the Assembly of Experts, Mohammad Yazdi, is a staunch supporter of Khamenei and a harsh critic of Rouhani.

Rouhani and his mentor, former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, are eager to increase the power of the Reformists in the Assembly of Experts in order to be in a better position to elect a more moderate Supreme Leader after Khamenei. Rouhani and Rafsanjani were boosted by none other than Khomeini’s grandson, Hossein, who has criticized the hardliners and some of the more hardline decisions of Khamenei in the past. Khamenei, on his part, gave Khomeini a cautious “blessing” stating that “there is no problem (with your nomination), only be careful not to damage Khomeini’s name and respect”.

Since the first Supreme Leader, Ruhollah Khomeini, was succeeded only at his death and no Supreme Leader has ever been removed, there is an expectation that Khamenei will remain the Supreme Leader until his death as well. As such, the Assembly of Experts has nothing to do until then.

But Rouhani, Rafsanjani and Khomeini have boldly emphasized the supervising powers of the Assembly of Experts in an effort to effectively control Khamenei while he is still alive and possibly even choose a new Supreme Leader before Khamenei’s demise. The hardliners have openly criticized such calls as anti-regime and as unconstitutional.


Rouhani is calling for open and transparent elections, urging the governing bodies to not disqualify anyone wanting to run for elections based on political views. Rouhani is counting on his popularity and specially on the younger voters to extricate the regime out of it Islamic Revolutionist ideals and out of isolation. Khamenei, backed by the IRGC, the current Assembly of Experts, the Principlists and the hardliners prefer to maintain the status quo.


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