For Iranian reformists, the twin parliament and Assembly of Experts elections on February 26 were also a chance to blow new life to their presence in the power circle of the Islamic Republic which they lost after their rejection of the results of the 2009 presidential elections, leading to street riots and months of chaos in the capital city of Tehran.
Almost six years after those days, Reformists are cheering the election gains and are ecstatic about their unexpected wins in the ballot boxes and sweeping Principalists off parliament seats in the Tehran constituency.
However, the results in the other cities are different and both Principalists and Reformists have enough seats to be influential in the next parliament and the Assembly of Experts, but the fact that almost all of the Principalists’ prominent figures in Tehran failed to find their way into the Parliament (and in case of the Assembly of Experts, only Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati was elected ranking 16th out of the 16 seats reserved for the Tehran constituency) is a major blow to them which had the upper hand over the course of the past decade.
Though Reformists’ gain in the elections is also a result of their coalition with government supporters, known as the Moderates, as well as some moderate Principalist figures such as Ali Motahhari which led them to support coalition lists for the twin elections, the fact that Reformists could gain such a major support from the people is an undeniable reality for the political power sphere of the Islamic Republic and on the other hand this victory poses, at the same time, an opportunity and a threat for the winning Reformists.
Will Reformists seize the opportunity?
After 2009’s post-election disputes and street riots, many Reformist leaders were arrested and many of their aides who spurred the public into street riots had to flee the country; subsequently, the leadership in Iran lost its faith in the movement and to loyalty of prominent Reformist leaders. This lack of confidence in the Reformist movement and absence of its leaders and forces beside consecutive defeats in the national and local elections pushed reformist figures out of the political scene, minimizing their role.
After Hassan Rouhani won the 2013 presidential election, he tried to pave the way for the return of Reformists to the country’s political circle, while, he himself is not a Reformist and even was a serious critic of them while he served as the secretary of the Supreme National Security Council.
The full participation of the reformists in the recent elections (even Reformists’ leaders under house arrest invited their supporters to participate in the elections) and then the results of the recent twin elections and especially the landslide victory of the Reformists in Tehran showed that the movement is coming back into the political sphere of the country and will revive its status as a legitimate game-changer.
Now, it’s about time for Reformist leaders to engage in direct talks with the political leadership of the system and to iron out misunderstandings and address the existing issues with them. Overestimating their reemerging power and making the same mistake of playing the role of staunch opponents of the Islamic Republic can lead them to a process which will not have better results than they gain in recent years. But a negotiated resolution not only will recreate the confidence and trust of the Islamic Republic to them but will secure their return to highest levels of the power in the country.
Dangers of a victory
If one was to study the voting pattern of the Iranians in last three decades, they would see Iranians mostly (if not always) make pragmatist decisions and never support a particular group because of their theoretical aims and promising rhetoric. Iranians evaluate the records of an official and after providing them enough time, they would decide to whether continue their support or terminate it. Unexpected victories of the Former reformist President Mohammad Khatami in 1997 and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2005 presidential elections are good examples of how different choices Iranian people can make due to their experience of the incumbent officials.
For this reason, Rouhani’s government- which turned to be a facilitator for the return of Reformism – will have a critical time for the rest of its tenure. Now the Parliament is also in line with the government and in case the government fails in fulfilling its promises, Principalists cannot be blamed as being the trouble makers! While people are hoping for a better economic situation after giving Rouhani more than two years to reach a nuclear deal, possible excessive concentration of Reformists on their political causes may undermine their ability to make significant and tangible changes in the life of ordinary people and so lose their votes in future Presidential elections, after less than two years.
In the words of the senior reformist leader Mohammadreza Aref during his campaign for the 2013 Presidential election, each time both government and the parliament was controlled by one party the outcome was not satisfactory.
Another threat to the Reformists is their inability in understanding the ordinary and the lower-classes especially in the small cities. They are the sources that provided Ahmadinejad with enough vote to win two Presidential elections against the robust rivals from the Reformist and Conservative circles. Today’s threat to Reformism is to make their usual mistake of confusing Tehran and large cities’ political tendency with national sentiments and ignoring lower- classes and ordinary people for who politics is not a priority.
Next presidential elections will be the scene of a critical completion between the Moderates/ Reformists who were controlling two important sources of power for at least two years and the Principalists who were out of power for the same period. I believe it will be the incumbent government’s economic record that will determine the next winner.