Janith Peiris looks at the recent elections in Iran and explains what they will mean for the west and a volatile region.
On 26th February, President Hassan Rouhani and his allies secured an election victory, gathering the support of the Iranian people following his successful negotiations with the P5+1 (China, France, Russia, the US and UK plus Germany) and the monumental effect of sanctions relief.
Iran has, like many developing nations, a loose democracy and in this structure there exist organisations such as the Assembly of Experts, the Guardian Council and the actual government. While it may not be apparent from the results, the hardliners within Iran have been struggling to contain the reformist sentiment that threatens their control. Rouhani’s victory was in part due to high turnouts, with the electoral commission postponing the closing of polls by five times, and despite the vetting of his “List of Hope”, reformist Mr Rouhani swept into power winning in former conservative heartland cities like Isfahan.
The country’s results shows candidates on the reformist list taking 30 per cent of the seats, conservatives 22 percent and independents 19 percent, with a dozen or so women winning seats. However, 13 per cent of seats will require runoff contests in late April because no one won the required 25 per cent of votes cast to claim the seat.
The outcome of the Iranian elections has led to a global sigh of relief as moderate and reformist groups, united under Rouhani, have won a significant majority. All 30 Consultative Assembly seats available in Tehran, the capital, went to the incumbent president showing support amongst a wide demographic within Iran. This has been perceived around the world as a vote of confidence for Rouhani and his diplomatic overtures.
This spells trouble for the conservative establishment which, made up of hard-line Islamic mullahs, has been dealt an unprecedented defeat, losing most of their strongholds within government. They lost 32 seats in the 88-member Assembly of Experts that nominates the Ayatollah (Supreme Leader), generally perceived to be the religious and moral authority within Iran. 15 of the 16 seats in the Tehran constituency fell to the reformists who have agreed to pursue détente (the relaxation of strained diplomatic tensions), while the conservatives – primarily those opposed to the negotiations – were left in the cold.
The conservative (AKA principalist) who won the 16th seat, Ahmad Jannati, is the chairman of the Guardian Council, a hard-line vetting body that disqualified the majority of prominent reformist and many moderate candidates. Just 30 out of 3000 candidates were approved to run for election for either the Assembly of Experts or Consultative Assembly. As a result there is still resistance to reformist and leftist candidates running as nominees for fear of disqualification; the journey to democracy is yet to be finished but significant progress has been made by the Iranian people.
Despite the gains within Tehran, the reformists fell short of capturing seats in the rural heartland of the conservatives, and this means that while weakened, the more nationalistic groups in Iran have political clout, enough to influence policy as they hold 64 of the 285 seats.
Iran’s momentous election results spell a continuation in current world policy; which is to say the maintenance and acceptance of the Iran deal, the relief in sanctions, increasing trade, low oil prices and most of all, keeping whatever stability is left in the Middle East intact. Rouhani is torn by the desire for a focus on economic reform compared to his supporters’ wish for social change – he has pursued both by opening up the markets to foreign investment.
This policy of détente and economic liberalisation is well regarded, as evidenced by the 62 per cent turnout and 34 million voters. The table below shows significant popular support for reformists Rouhani and Khatami, a former president, gathering a combined total of 62 per cent.
It would therefore be fair to say that the election outcome is promising for future stability in Iran and a continued policy of détente towards the West. The future of the Middle East is shaped by Iran’s geopolitical influence and with the nation pursuing a diplomatic policy, given sectarian violence within the region, there is the chance for multilateral peace talks and for Iran to finally come in from the cold, once and for all.