This is guest post by Paola Rivetti, Lecturer in Politics in the School of Law and Government at Dublin City University
On February 26th, Iranians went to polls to elect the tenth consultative assembly or Majles. As in several constituencies the candidates failed to obtain at least 25% of the votes, a second electoral round took place on April 29th. The Majles exerts legislative power in Iran, but its legislative functions are supervised by the Guardians’ Council, which, if any of the laws approved by the parliament is considered to be not Islamic enough, sends it back to the assembly for revision. Although its power is limited by the Guardians, the parliament has a crucial political role as it can facilitate the government or significantly reduce its executive power by impeaching ministers or blocking governmental proposed laws and policies. As Rouhani administration’s achievement in reaching a nuclear deal has been controversial in the country, with some political factions celebrating the deal while others fiercely criticised it as a bad deal, the latest parliamentary elections have a crucial role in revealing the people’s and political elite’s feelings about the direction that the Islamic Republic has been taking in the past few years. Despite the overall electoral result seems to confirm a landslide victory for Rouhani’s supporters, a closer look may reveal a slightly different reality.
The final composition of the current Majles, which contains 290 seats and will start its mandate on May 28th, is as follows. The List of Hope, which is supportive of Rouhani’s administration, obtained 121 seats. The Great Coalition, which reunites the conservative forces, obtained 83 seats. The People’s Voice Coalition, which is headed by Ali Motahari and is composed of moderate conservatives, namely those who have been very critical of other conservatives during Ahmadinejad’s government and the latest Majles but do not support Rouhani’s government, obtained 11 seats. Finally, independents got 65 seats. The remaining seats are divided between the representatives of the religious minorities and the candidates who were supported by both the List of Hope and the Great conservative Coalition. There also is a relevant gender aspect to this electoral result, as 17 women have been elected as MPs (the highest number ever) and they all are supportive of the government. The youngest is Seyedeh Fatemeh Hosseini, who campaigned denouncing female unemployment. As reported by Narges Bajoghli, Hosseini also spoke against the securitisation of education policies and university campuses since 2009, and focused much of her electoral promises on getting better employment conditions for the younger generation.
Despite several observers reporting an explosion of joy and relief amongst Iranians when the nuclear deal was reached last July, data from the parliamentary elections are less clear in suggesting a widespread support for the government. This is particularly relevant, as Rouhani’s administration and the future Majles will need to take positions, formulate or halt policies on the crucial issues that (will) follow the lifting of economic sanctions.
As argued by Arang Keshavarzian, the 2015 nuclear deal can be considered as a new social pact between the population and the regime. After the revolution, the process of legitimacy-seeking on the part of the newly established regime revolved very much around the instrumental legalisation of economic situations that were previously considered to be unlawful. Later, the war against Iraq further strengthened the regime and its legitimacy. The 2015 nuclear deal can be considered as a re-assertion of that old social pact, through which the regime confirms its capability of providing for the people.
However, despite the fact that candidates linked to the list supporting Rouhani’s administration won the majority of the seats in the parliament, Rouhani’s opponents also received significant support. In particular, this is true for independent candidates who will play a fundamental role in directing the government’s policies in the future. As noted by Ali Vaez and Fulvio Scaglione, the second electoral turn that took place in April has confirmed their political relevance. Ali Vaez points out that, although this is not a new phenomenon, independent MPs’ behaviour is difficult to predict. Independents could form their own parliamentary group, align with the two main blocs (the List of Hope and the Great conservative Coalition) heating up the confrontation over policies, or they could vote with no predictable patterns making the policy-making process more difficult for the government. According to Vaez, if such situation had to take place, most probably independent MPs would throw their weight behind the pro-Rouhani moderates/reformists on economic policies while siding with the anti-Rouhani conservatives on socio-political matters.
This prediction is strengthened by the fact that the ‘new social pact’ symbolised by the nuclear deal has received fierce criticism on the part of several political factions and personalities, who accused Rouhani and his administration of ‘selling out’ Iran and his nuclear programme in exchange for very little advantage. In particular, while economic benefit will pay off only in the future, the newly-elected Majles will be called on to vote on the economic direction of the next economic plans and budget laws elaborated by the government. While Rouhani’s administration favours the integration of Iran in the neo-liberal global market, the conservative are more cautious as they fear for the loss of the economic benefits that domestic actors (such as the pasdaran and the bonyads) have been able to enjoy thanks to partial economic isolation, as well as the penetration of anti-revolutionary influence from abroad. It follows that it can be expected that the debate around the next budget law will be very heated. Likewise, all issues linked to the 2015 nuclear deal will also be at the centre of a lively debate. In fact, the 2015 deal also poses limitations on the possession of some weapons, such as missiles, that military forces, whether the regular army or the pasdaran, can enjoy. It follows that all issues linked to military expenses will be at the core of contentious debates, adding to already extant contention around Rouhani’s preference for the regular army to the pasdaran.
Despite having a reasonably sympathetic Majles on his side reflecting a new, neo-liberal and pragmatic hegemony being established in Iran, Rouhani and his government may still face significant opposition. Much of the outcome of such a process will depend on the government’s ability to deliver the economic benefits promised by the deal, and to distribute them equally and without creating further discontent within both the elite and the population.