TEHRAN — Iranian Reformists are now faced with the desirable, but highly contentious challenge of electing a new mayor of Tehran following sweeping victories in May 19 city council and village elections. Even the Reformists themselves did not expect to gain control of every council seat in the capital. Their decisive victory, however, has brought to the fore serious internal differences over whom to select as the next mayor. At present, Mohsen Hashemi Rafsanjani, son of the late President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, seems to be the most likely candidate for the job.
Prior to the council elections, the Reformists had released a unified list of candidates. The move met with strong criticism from the outset, with some questioning why certain individuals were on the ticket while others were not and others speculating whether selections had been based on connections rather than merit. Indeed, few expected the Reformists to do as well as they did, especially considering these suspicions as well as the spread of fake candidate lists in the days leading up the May 19 polling. These bogus lists had the same design and graphics as the Reformists' List of Hope, and while they had pictures of Rafsanjani and fellow Reformist politician Ahmad Masjed-Jame’i at the top, the candidate names were different and, oddly, were those of Reformists who had not made the official list and rival Principlists.
When election results were announced May 21, it emerged that the List of Hope had not only won all 21 seats on the Tehran city council, but there was also a 400,000-vote difference between the last person on the Reformist ticket and the leading Principlist, who came in 22nd.
Immediately after announcement of the voting results, the challenge of selecting a candidate for mayor began. Hashemi soon emerged as the main focus. Four years ago, in September 2013, he had come close to winning the mayorship, receiving the same number of votes as the current mayor, Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, in council polling. The election therefore went to a second round, which Hashemi then lost by two votes, allowing Ghalibaf to retain the position. This year, as rumors of Hashemi's possibly becoming mayor began to circulate, some Reformist media outlets immediately took an opposing position.
In a May 21 interview, Gholamhossein Karbaschi, a former Tehran mayor (1990-98) and current secretary-general of the Executives of Construction Party who played a key role in compiling the List of Hope, said, “Mohsen Hashemi is a suitable option for the mayorship. Given his management background in [the Tehran] Metro and urban areas, he is an appropriate option for replacing Ghalibaf.”
Some Reformists were quick to respond to Karbaschi’s comments. In a tweet the same day, Mahmoud Sadeghi, a member of parliament representing Tehran, wrote, “All those chosen [to run] for the city council vowed in their [internal] pact that if elected, they would not accept any other position.” Commenting under Sadeghi’s tweet, Reformist journalist Mehdi Ghadimi wrote, “Hashemi has apparently not signed on to the pact.”
In a May 22 interview, Jaleh Faramarzian, secretary of the Reformists' Supreme Council for Policymaking said, “Members of the city council cannot become mayor, and those who entered [the council] through the List of Hope have to remain committed to the people’s vote and cannot become mayor by withdrawing their council membership. Before the elections, we issued an ultimatum to all members of the List of Hope, and the members signed a pact which has this [point] as one of its paragraphs.”
Meanwhile, Zahra Nejad-Bahram, a member of the incoming Tehran city council, said in an interview May 29, “Members of the city council will not become mayor. This is while reports of Mohsen Hashemi Rafsanjani's refusing to sign a pact had been published both before and during the elections.”
No clear statement by any other official from the Reformists' Supreme Council for Policymaking, under the guidance of former President Mohammad Khatami, has, however, been issued. Meanwhile, Hashemi’s high vote count, setting a record for the number of votes for a Tehran city council candidate, has led to some viewing him as a suitable candidate for the mayorship.
Following the May 19 elections, the website Omidnameh, close to the prominent Reformist politician Mohammad Reza Aref, posted an online poll asking readers to identify their mayoral preference from a list of names that included Hashemi, Roads and Urban Development Minister Abbas Akhoundi, First Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri and former head of the National Sports Organization of Iran Mohsen Mehralizadeh. Days later, more than 60% of respondents had chosen Hashemi.
Sadegh Zibakalam, professor of political science at Tehran University told Al-Monitor, “Mohsen Hashemi is the best option for … the [Tehran] municipality not just because he is Ayatollah Hashemi’s son, but because of his shining record and good performance in the municipality and Metro.”
On June 11, Elias Hazrati, editor-in-chief of the Reformist newspaper Etemad and a Tehran representative voted into parliament on the List of Hope, referred to several people as potential candidates for the mayorship on his Twitter account and wrote, “Mohsen Hashemi and Mahmoud Hojjati [the minister of agriculture] have a greater chance of replacing Ghalibaf.”
Yet some journalists as well as social media activists have opposed the prospect of Hashemi becoming mayor. On May 23, Ameneh Shirafkan, a parliamentary correspondent for the Reformist newspaper Shargh who also ran for the Tehran city council and came in 57th place with some 33,000 votes, took to Twitter and posted statements by Faramarzian about Hashemi’s eligibility to be mayor. Shirafkan wrote that they are the “best measure in the days when everyone in the [Executives of] Construction Party is trying to make Mohsen Hashemi mayor.”
Meanwhile, on May 28, Aref, titular head of the Reformists' Supreme Council for Policymaking, criticized the Iranian media debate on the mayoral election, writing, “The subject of choosing a mayor should not be turned into a challenging discussion and dragging the topic into the media is not [to anyone’s] benefit.”
Commenting on some Reformist currents' opposition to a Hashemi mayorship, Zibakalam told Al-Monitor, “The reasoning of these friends is that with Hashemi leaving the council for the [Tehran] municipality, one seat [on the council] will be [left vacant and thus] given to the Principlists. But I believe this is not that important and that one person among 20 others cannot have that much of an impact, not to mention that Mohsen Hashemi is considered a suitable option for the mayorship.”
Amid all the controversy, Hashemi himself has mostly remained silent. On May 25, he described talk about his becoming a mayor as premature and asked that city council members be given the opportunity to discuss the matter in a calm atmosphere with few distractions.
Although such individuals as Akhoundi, Hojjati and Mehralizadeh are also considered potential candidates for the position, it appears that Hashemi is indeed the principal actor and most likely person to replace Ghalibaf.