March 17, 2008

NIAC Memo: Will Iran’s New Majles Pose a Challenge to Ahmadinejad?

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Washington DC – Iran’s parliamentary (Majles) elections finally took place on Friday March 14. Despite a conservative win, chances are that the new Majles will provide a tougher political landscape for Ahmadinejad on economic grounds but not on nuclear and foreign policy issues.

As reported in the press, although about 60 of the 290 seats contested will have to be determined in the run-off elections to be held in April or May, the conservatives won handily. But this was no surprise. No one expected this election to lead to a reformist or centrist win.

The “engineering” that went with the process of disqualification assured that the reformists had only candidates for about a third of the seats in the provinces and many of those candidates were not well-known. In the city of Tehran, after the reversal of some disqualifications, reformists and centrists did end up having separate lists (with about half of them in common) for all thirty seats but many of the candidates were again not well known. In addition, lack of resources and control of the media by conservatives made campaigning very difficult. So the victory shouts of many conservative outlets, proclaiming 70 percent win for the so-called “principlists” deserves only a “but of course and what else did you expect” response.
The issue was always how well the reformists/centrists and the more pragmatic conservatives critical of President Ahmadinejad’s economic policies and management would do (and conversely how badly his supporters woulddo). The reformists/centrists were hoping for a stronger minority status (both in terms of numbers and more influential candidates), while the so-called more pragmatic conservatives were planning for a stronger presence particularly in leadership positions as a means to create a working majority in a more centrist and effective Majles. The current Majles has been criticized for being weak and ineffective on economic issue vis-à-vis an erratic and yet forceful president.
Given what they had to work with, the reformists actually did better than expected. This election should give reformist and centrist parties a boost in positively assessing their participation in the election process and continuing to organize throughout the country. In the provinces they won about 35 seats and they are reportedly in contest for another 15 seats or so in the second round (they had 39 seats in the Seventh Majles). The new Majles will also have a larger contingency of independents whose political affiliations and tendencies are not yet clear.
The factor to watch in the coming months is the extent to which the pragmatic conservatives will be successful in gaining enough support to vie for the leadership of the parliament. Their presumed leader Ali Larijani, Iran’s former chief nuclear negotiator, won handily in the city of Qom. But the extent of support for the leadership of pragmatic conservatives will only be determined once the new Majles is seated and secret ballot elections for leadership positions are held.
At this point, the only thing that can be certain is that the large number of elected conservatives cannot be considered as constituting a unified bloc in Majles. This is because despite a concerted effort prior to the election to come up with a unified list of candidates under a coalition of conservative parties and organizations called the United Principlist Front (UPF), the conservatives ultimately ended up offering two major lists with UPF identified more closely with Ahmadinejad’s administration while the Comprehensive Principlist Front (CPF) identified loosely, but not formally, with more pragmatic conservatives critical of Ahmadinejad’s economic policies and erratic management style.
In the competition between the two conservative lists, UPF seems to have done slightly better than CPF throughout the country, suggesting that reports of Ahmadinejad’s decline and lack of popularity may be exaggerated. But since UPF was a coalition of conservative groups, including some critics of Ahmadinejad’s economic policies who may shift to the pragmatic side once elections for leadership positions are held, it is not yet clear whether Ahmadinejad supporters or opponents will have the upper hand in the new Majles.
At this point, given the divisions not only between reformists and conservatives but also among the conservatives, the forecast of a more fractured Majles than the existing one is not outlandish. But this same Majles has the potential to move to the center with effective leadership on the part of pragmatic conservatives; with pragmatic conservatives, independents, centrists and even perhaps reformists working together to put up more resistance to Ahmadinejad’s expansionist economic policies and erratic management.
The reportedly low number of incumbent returnees (33%) should also give the new leadership a chance to mold this Majles in a pragmatic direction if there is political will. This at least is the expectation the so-called more pragmatic conservatives, such as Ali Larijani, have placed on themselves or have created. Whether they can pull it off, is of course yet to be seen.
It is important to note, however, that this is a very limited expectation about improving the management of the economy. It does not include any challenges in the foreign policy arena; nor does it include major shifts in the domestic political arena.
The only important political ramification of the potential rise of a more centrist/pragmatic conservatism in Majles is the challenge individuals rightly or wrongly associated with it, such as Ali Larijani or Tehran mayor Mohammad Qalibaf, may pose to Ahmadinejad in the 2009 presidential election. But that election is more than a year away and it is just too soon to start speculating about it. These individuals have to raise their profile throughout the country (not only in Tehran) before the next election, proving themselves more popular than they have been in the past in order to challenge Ahmadinejad successfully.
Dr. Farideh Farhi is an independent researcher and an adjunct professor of political science at the University of Hawai’i.




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