Iran opposition secures first round advantage

04 April 2008
President Ahmadinejad has claimed victory after the first phase of Iran’s parliamentary elections, but it is his opponents who are in the stronger position.

Iran is in political limbo while it waits for the second round of elections to the Majlis (parliament). On 14 March, the Islamic Republic held the first round of elections. According to the Interior Ministry, voter turnout was 60 per cent, up from 51 per cent in 2004. In the next round, on 25 April, candidates who failed to achieve a majority will compete for the remaining 70 seats.

Electoral approval

Supporters of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad secured 65 seats in the first round, the largest single block. The government is trying to portray this as electoral approval, but it can take little comfort in the overall results.

So far, 46 seats are held by its conservative critics, and reformist opponents hold even more.

Ali Larijani, the former lead negotiator for Iran’s nuclear programme, who resigned over differences with Ahmadinejad, won an impressive victory in Qom. He will head the conservative opposition to the president with the support of Mohammad Qalibaf, the mayor of Tehran, who harbours presidential ambitions, and Mohsen Rezaie, a former commander of the Revolutionary Guards, who has criticised Ahmad-inejad’s policies.

At the same time, the broad reformist block has secured 34 seats, while 39 independents have also been elected. At least 16 of the latter group are ideologically tied to the reformists and a further 10 are seen as conservative critics.

At the end of the first round of voting, a majority of seats are held by Ahmadinejad’s opponents.

According to most projections, reformists and conservative critics of Ahmadinejad will also gain the majority of seats in the second round. Although the two groups will not co-ordinate their opposition to the president, the new Majlis will be more confrontational.

As a result, the president will find it difficult to push his legis-lation through parliament.

This opposition will reflect not only the intensity of the factional struggles taking place among the country’s political elite, but also a growing discontent in the wider society over politics and the government’s economic policies.

Looming large in the background will be the presidential elections in 2009. Ahmadinejad’s conservative critics, as well as the broad reformist movement that includes the supporters of former presidents Mohammad Khatami and Hashemi Rafsanjani, as well as Mehdi Karrubi, head of the National Confidence party, all have the presidency in their sights. They will use their base in parliament to weaken Ahmadinejad.

At the same time, Ahmadinejad’s declining popularity, as a result of his economic policies, will put great pressure on his supporters in the Majlis, who will be wondering how closely they should now associate themselves with him.

But it is not just the presidency that has been affected. While there has been much talk about the implications for Ahmadinejad, relatively little attention has been given to the politics of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who has skillfully used the election to strengthen his position.

It is clear that he was not prepared to allow the return of a refor-mist-dominated Majlis, similar to the one from 2000 to 2004, which he considers a direct threat to his position.

Two weeks before the election, he directly intervened in the campaign by voicing support for the broad conservative coalition. It was the first time a supreme leader had taken such a step, and the move politicised the leader’s office to an extent unseen in previous elections. This could yet have consequences for the overall legitimacy of the office and its future.

Personality conflicts

Khamenei has been determined to keep the executive and legislative branches of government in the hands of conservatives. Despite this, he will continue to allow, and may even inflame, the personality and policy conflicts in the conservative camp, to protect his power.

While the conservative groups are likely to suffer from infighting, and Ahmadinejad’s power base seems likely to weaken, the short-term prospects for reformists appear bleaker. After the parliamentary contest, it seems to many observers in Iran that the reform movement has reached a dead end.

Although they have a sizeable presence in the Majlis, the election has shown that their return to majority rule is now greatly dependent on the movement’s nominal leader, Khatami. Having won presidential elections in 1997 and 2001, pressure is now being placed on him to run once again.

Despite their disappointment in his previous terms in office, his backers claim he is the Iran’s last chance to achieve change from within. The greatest result of this election might be a Khatami return to the presidency.

Whether Khatami decides to run again or not, the current president will face strong opposition from many quarters over the next year. The results of the latest Majlis election show that a majority of Iranians voted for candidates critical of Ahmadinejad, and they have returned a Majlis that will play a role in his undoing.

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