Iran: the country of Ayatollahs at the polls

in BreakingNews @en/Middle East - Africa/Politics by

26 February 2016. An historical date for Iran that, for the first time after the end of the international sanctions, calls its citizens to the polls for a double vote, Parliament and Assembly of Experts. This vote is also a test for President Hassan Rouhani, who, since 2013, has been promoting political and social reforms, characterised by openness towards the West. The outcome of these elections, indeed, will show both to what extend the reformist line of the President is rooted in the society and which could be the future developments for the Republic.

The first vote will be cast for the Parliament, Majlis, consisting of 290 seats, 5 of them allocated to non-Muslim religious minorities. The Parliament is the legislative body, responsible for passing legislation, approving the annual budget and signing international treaties. To date, its majority, conservative and fundamentalist, has sharply contrasted Rouhani’s policies. It is clear how a different arrangement may influence the country’s future actions, as well as its posture in the international arena. “You have created a new atmosphere with your vote” tweeted president Rouhani after the elections.

The Assembly of Experts, instead, is composed of 88 members, exclusively Islamic scholars, serving eight-year terms. In fact, it is the most important body in the country, as it elects the Supreme Leader, the most powerful political and religious position. Considering the poor health condition for the current Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, it is very likely that the newly elected Assembly will select his successor.

Therefore, it is not just a nomination of candidates: it is a choice between two opposite political paths. The first is headed by president Rouhani and characterised by openness –especially economic openness- towards the West and by an attempt to promote a positive image of the country in the world. On the other hand, Ayatollah Khamenei, conservative and openly against the West, is the spokesman of a policy that aims to pursue a resistance economy and a political system based on the power of the Revolutionary Guards.

The results of the elections, which was attended by nearly 60% of the electorate (about 33 million Iranians), could have relevant consequences for the future of the Islamic Republic. Reformists won, controlling 96 seats in Parliament, while fundamentalists and independents won respectively 91 and 25 seats. However, two aspects should be pointed out. First, the concept of “reformism” should be seen through the lens of Iranian culture. Their reformism is far away from our reformism. It’s always about fundamentalism, though hidden behind a curtain of openness towards the West. Suffice to say that the real reformists have been disqualified from the list of eligible candidates in both the Parliament and the Assembly.

Secondly, we should consider the electoral base. Reformists have gained ground in metropolitan areas, while fundamentalists obtained more consensus in rural districts, home for one third of the population. However, the eight major cities, where almost half of the Iranians lives, won only 57 of 290 seats in Parliament. Given that 52 of these seats will be allocated in a runoff in late April, it seems that games are still open.

So what next?

Perhaps greater openness, yes, but it doesn’t mean, as some people think (or hope), that Iran will turn into a Western democracy. It is likely, and desirable, a détente in the relations between Iran and the West. However, we should bear in mind that Iran is still a fundamentalist regime, based on Shari’a, which, to date, refuses to give voice to the real reformists, who advocate a significant change in the political, economic and social system. Reformism, indeed, does not mean democracy.

Moreover, it is hard to believe that fundamentalists will easily give up. As percentages show, their ideas are mainly rooted in the rural society, which can still significantly affected the final composition of the Parliament. More than this. If Teheran celebrated the outcome of the elections, the reaction in Qom, Iran’s Shiite heartland, was different. “People in the real Iran are the ones here, we respect and follow the path laid down by Ayatollah Khomeini and we must protect our values”, said a 23-year-old clerical worker.

Questions remain about the future of the country. Despite the victory of reformists, fundamentalist strands are still eradicated in both the political élite and the society. Inevitably, there will be a change: however, we should keep our feet on the ground. It remains to be seen, indeed, whether the path of reformism will actually shape an Iran closer to Western democracies, or whether the hard-line fundamentalism will find a way to regain the support lost, thus hampering the openness towards the West promoted by Rouhani in recent years.

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