Iran’s Elections and the Precarious Path Toward True Democracy

On Friday, February 26, voters in the Islamic Republic of Iran went to the polls to choose representatives to the Majlis, a 290-seat parliament, and the 88-member Assembly of Experts, which supervises the country’s Supreme Leader. Though some 33 million Iranians, or 60 percent of eligible voters, cast ballots freely, the process was not entirely democratic. Iran is ranked 156 by The Economist’s 2015 annual Democracy Index, between Laos and the Democratic Republic of the Congo—not exemplary company when evaluating the state of a democracy.

Iran’s system of government and electoral processes contain many institutional constraints to ensure voters’ choices cannot fundamentally transform the political system. For instance, the Guardian Council, an unelected body comprising six experts in Islamic law chosen by the Supreme Leader, and six jurists selected by the Majlis, must approve a candidate for the Majlis, the office of the president, or the Assembly of Experts before he or she can run for office. Ninety-nine percent of reformist candidates for the Majlis were disqualified from running for office before this year’s elections.

“Iran’s system of government and electoral processes contain many institutional constraints to ensure voters’ choices cannot fundamentally transform the political system.”

Significantly, unelected groups retain great control over the implementation of Iran’s foreign policy—like the March 9 missile tests, which may have violated UN sanctions on the country’s ballistic missile program. These tests represent a show of defiance and strength toward regional and global adversaries. However, they also illustrate the struggle between the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, whose members report only to the Supreme Leader, and Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s president. Rouhani, a proponent of the recent nuclear deal with Western powers and the accompanying sanctions relief, seeks a less confrontational foreign policy; his 2013 election suggests the Iranian people do as well. Though the missile tests do not violate the terms of the nuclear deal, they discredit Rouhani’s attempts at rapprochement, and show that the power to make foreign policy in Iran still lies largely with military and theocratic leaders uninfluenced by popular vote.

True political freedoms for the Iranian people, and the ability to exercise them in ways that actually influence policy, may still be far away. Yet the outcome of the recent elections shows cautious optimism toward both Rouhani’s more democratic agenda and the potential for greater reform in the future, despite considerable conservative opposition.

Official results show members of the “List of Hope,” a coalition of reformists and moderates, winning all 30 Majlis seats contested in Tehran, the capital. Tehran is the largest of Iran’s electoral districts, and its representatives are traditionally powerful in parliament, making a Majlis victory here a consequential one. However, its vote is not representative of the entire country. Though results from other districts are still relatively inconclusive due to unclear reports from both state media in Iran and Western media, it is estimated that moderate candidates won between 80 and 90 seats. Hardline conservatives won the same number. Other seats either went to independents, who ran outside of the conservative or moderate lists, or will be contested again in runoff elections. Lists, too, are loose associations of candidates, and not “parties” with established platforms, meaning that distinctions between reformist, moderate, and conservative representatives may blur in practice.

The Tehran victory is notable because of the barriers faced by reformist figures and their supporters. The Guardian Council only allowed 30 out of 3,000 reformist candidates to run for office, and all 30 of those won. Campaigning is limited to the week before the election, so lesser-known candidates who did qualify had little time to achieve name recognition and support. Former President Mohammad Khatami, a notable reformist leader, released a video urging voters to support moderate lists at the expense of more hardline conservatives. His image is banned from the media, so supporters spread his message in part by creating videos of themselves lip-syncing to his speech.

The types of candidates who succeeded despite these constraints were remarkable because they strategically overcame the considerable odds against them. One newly elected MP, Parveneh Salahshuri, gave a powerful interview where she discussed her support for economic reform, a society that works for women and youth, and even the possibility that the veil might one day be optional for women. That a candidate with this populist agenda could run, gain support, and win office shows that the space for reform is widening among the public—and may widen in government in the long run.

“One newly elected MP, Parveneh Salahshuri, gave a powerful interview where she discussed her support for economic reform, a society that works for women and youth, and even the possibility that the veil might one day be optional for women. That a candidate with this populist agenda could run, gain support, and win office shows that the space for reform is widening among the public—and may widen in government in the long run.”

It is tempting to frame the potential of a greater reformist and moderate presence in the Majlis as a “pro-Western” victory. The success of the nuclear deal, the lifting of sanctions, and the greater economic opening promised by Rouhani and his supporters were all drivers of moderate support, and were also reliant on slight rapprochement with the United States and Europe.

This supposed mending of grievances, however, comes at a time when anti-Americanism is still a prominent and useful conservative tactic. More hardline elements in the Iranian government manifest themselves as shows of strength at the expense of Western powers—ranging from the capture and release of a U.S. vessel that drifted into Iranian waters to campaign rhetoric conflating reformists and moderates with British intervention. This underscores Iranian influence and discredits rapid attempts at change. Framing the political gains of Iranian moderates and reformists as an outcome that suits Western interests will likely undermine the movement’s chance of success.

The results of the Iranian elections are more accurately understood as a victory for the Iranian people against hardline conservative elements in their government—and in favor of candidates who will support efforts to create a more open economy, improve societal prospects for young people, and work toward enduring change in the country. The international community, as it does when any change occurs in the political balance of an important regional power, will assess the results cautiously. These analyses should focus more on whether these results signal the start of a new, more open direction in Iranian politics. If a more moderate parliament holds support for a successful economic opening, the movement could gain power, bolstered by popular economic satisfaction. Long-term change might then follow that may make Iran a more responsible regional actor—and its government more representative of the views of its people.

Image: Campaign posters in downtown Tehran. (Salemi/AP Photo, Editorial Use)


Meghan Bodette will be attending Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service in the fall of 2016. She is interested in international relations theory and foreign policy, is studying Spanish and Russian, and has volunteered with a presidential campaign. Follow her on Twitter and Medium.

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