Iran’s parliamentary (Majles) elections finally took place on Friday March 14. It usually takes a few days for things to settle and take stock of what really happened. This is particularly so since a good percentage of the seats (about 20 percent in the provinces and even perhaps 50 percent or so in Tehran) will have to be determined in the second round. This is because none of the candidates were able to receive the necessary 25 percent of the cast ballot for those particular seats. In fact, throughout Iran very few candidates were able to take anything close to 50 percent of the vote. I guess this is what happens when close to 4500 candidates participate in elections held for a 290 seat (207 constituencies) parliament.
It is also difficult to take stock of what happened because various players and their connected newspapers, news agencies, and websites are also into the business of spinning the results of this election to their favor. So here is my half-baked attempt (half-backed since the counting of Tehran vote is not over yet) to come up with some conclusions that also take into account the history of recent Majles elections in Iran.
1. Turnout. There is talk of a 65 percent turnout. I am a bit skeptical of this figure and expect the percentage to go down to around 60 or even a bit less after the whole process is over and the numbers for big cities are counted. In the past few Majles elections, the percentages have varied from the low 51 percent in the Seventh Majles (2004) to 67 percent in the Sixth (2000) and 71 percent in the Fifth (1996) Majles elections.
These numbers are for the whole country. The numbers in larger cities, particularly Tehran, are lower and this year is reported to be around 40 percent (I actually would be surprised if it is this high in Tehran itself, although such a percentage or even a bit higher for the whole Tehran province is believable. They were about 56 percent for the Fifth, 47 percent for the Sixth, and 37 percent for the Seventh Majles). My sense is that the percentages were higher in this election than the 2004 election (when the en masse disqualification of reformist Majles deputies led to calls for boycott; something that didn’t happen this time). But they will be below the 1996 and 2000 Majles elections when there was a real sense that the results of those elections could lead to a change of direction in the country.
2. General Results: No one expected this election to lead to a reformist or centrist win. The “engineering” (mohandesi-ye entekhabat or election engineering is actually a term openly used in Iran to talk about this election) 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.
What was always at issue was 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 do). The reformists/centrists are hoping for a stronger minority status (both in terms of numbers and more influential candidates), while the more pragmatic conservatives are hoping for a stronger presence particularly in the leadership of the Majles as a means to create a working majority in a more centrist and effective Majles (more on conservative divisions below). The Seventh Majles had been criticized for being weak and ineffective on economic issue vis-à-vis an erratic and yet forceful president.
With results in, incomplete as they are, it seems to me, one should expect an even more fractured Eight Majles than the Seventh one. But this same Majles has the potential to move to the center with effective leadership on the part of pragmatic conservatives; with pragmatic conservatives, centrists, or even perhaps reformists working together to put up more resistance to Ahmadinejad’s expansionist economic policies and erratic management. The reported 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 - Iran’s former chief nuclear negotiator - who was elected with over 75 percent of the vote from Qom, have placed on themselves or have created. Whether they can pull it off, is of course yet to be seen.
Note that this is a very limited expectation about improving the management of the economy and 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 folks have to raise their profile throughout the country (not only in Tehran) before the next election and prove themselves more popular than they have been in the past, in order to challenge Ahmadinejad successfully.
3. Reformist Performance: Given what they had to work with, the reformists actually did better than expected (especially for seats where there were common candidates between the two main reformist/centrist groups: The Reformist Coalition and National Confidence Party). This election should give reformist and centrist parties a boost in positively assessing their participation in the election process and continuing to organize throughout Iran.
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 way it looks, it is their higher than expected performance in the provinces that may be causing a bit of post-election engineering or tampering in Tehran results.
The initial reports from Tehran suggested that reformists had done well but the numbers coming out so far only has the reformist list header, Majid Ansari (the chair of Budget Committee in the Sixth Majles and a current member of the Expediency Council), in the top thirty (29th to be precise). Tehran results are important because they are usually treated as reflection of how well different tendencies do throughout the country. As such, it will be considered a major setback to conservatives if reformists and centrists, who did have complete lists of candidates for this city, do too well in Tehran. Tehran is also important because its candidates have more of a national profile and accordingly more impact in shaping opinion and policies.
The way it looks, the top 15 or so candidates in Tehran, who all happen to be from the main principlist list will make it in the first round while most top reformist candidates have to compete with other principlists in the second round for the next 15 seat. A similar process occurred in the 2006 municipal elections for the city of Tehran. The reformists did well but with a little bit of post-election engineering the number of their winning candidates was reduced. I am guessing that something similar will happen in this election and their number of their winning candidates will be reduced to about 5 or 6 (if they are lucky) instead of 15 or 16! This is just yet another dimension of the strangeness of Iranian politics. Conservatives still worry about the process at least appearing somewhat legitimate or acceptable to significant domestic players; and reformists and centrists taking whatever they can get as being better than nothing in terms of impact.
One more point about reformist performance is that they did surprisingly well in a couple of important cities. Tabriz in East Azerbaijan province is particularly worth noting. This city has six seats and reformists/centrists, because of disqualifications, only had one candidate. And he was initially the only one that was able to get into Majles in the first round (as I write this post, a news alert came saying that the Tabriz data was reassessed and two principlist candidates were also seated in the first round!). The principlist candidates all ran well behind this reformist candidate, suggesting that other reformists would have done well had they not been disqualified. As such, the conservatives did indeed have a good reason for all the disqualifications!!
One particular reformist candidate that I have been following is from the city of Qazvin. He is current deputy and frequent government critic. He was initially disqualified and re-qualified in the last minute. His easy win was clear early on but the delay in voting results raised fear that some tampering was about to take place but his win was ultimately announced late in the day.
It will be a while before I can do a detailed study of provincial differences but provincial differences are there and should be noted. Part of the difference lay of course in the fact that in some provinces, reformists simply didn’t have candidates but this doesn’t mean that they won in every seat they contested. Reformists, for instance, did fairly well in Kerman and Kordestan but not in South Khorasan (although they did pick up one seat out of four)). In the southern province of Bushehr, those associated with the United Principlist Front (this is the group generally associate with Ahmadinejad’s government) did particularly bad, losing every seat decided in the first round to either reformists or independents. In Kordestan, the alternative principlist list may win two seats out of six but the UPF list did not win even one seat.
4. Principlist Success or Divisions?: The conservative Kayhan newspaper reports that in the provinces 147 out of the already decided seats of 204 have gone to the principlists (with about 25 going to independents). My numbers, generated out of the matching of the names of the winning candidates and the pre-election lists, suggests that the number of independents elected so far is as high as forty (and more may get elected after the second round). To be sure some of these independent candidates, like the husband and wife team that was re-elected in Esfahan, are conservative but this is not necessarily the case regarding the less well-known candidates, many of whom had reason to hide their reformist leanings in order to avoid vetting.
More importantly, the number of principlist winners cannot be considered as constituting a unified bloc in Majles. This is because despite a concerted effort to come up with a unified list 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 management. The pre-election negotiations even assured that the UPF list had some government critics in it.
Because of these negotiations, these two lists ended up having many joint candidates (for instance, in the city of Tehran they had 9 shared names) but quite a few of their candidates were not joint, ultimately bringing into question the idea of conservative unity. My numbers are rough at this point but suggest that out of the 120-130 self identified conservatives who won in the provinces, about 70 of them are not joint candidates; about 40 were exclusive UPF candidates while about 30 were exclusive CPF candidates. This means that even if we accept that all the shared candidates are Ahmadinejad supporters (which I do not think is a correct thing to do), so far the total number of Ahmadinejad supporters is less than 50 percent of elected deputies.
This of course is the result of an engineered election. Without such an engineering, the popular sentiments may be best reflected in the districts that were really contested, A reformist analysis reported in Aftabnews, close to former president Hashemi Rafsanjani, suggests that out of the 102 provincial seats that were contested, supporters of the government’s line only gained 35 seats while the rest went to more pragmatic conservatives, reformists, and independents. If this outcome can be generalized to the whole country, this is not good news for Ahmadinejad but I am not convinced if it can.
5. Women’s Performance. This is my last point about these elections for now. Women did miserably in this election. As far as I can tell, only 3 women have been elected in the first round, none of them reformists. Two are deputies in the current Majles and one is a new one from Khorasan Razavi Province (city of Mashad), replacing the one female conservative deputy who lost in the Ardebil Province. The Tehran list has a handful of women in the top 50 but at most one or two have chance to be seated in the first round. There are also a few women in contention in the second round throughout the country. But these numbers may portend an even lower presence of women in the Eight than the Seventh Majles (I think there were less than 10 in the Seventh Majles).