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Iran’s Reformists scramble to avert defeat in key polls

With only six months to go until Iran's crucial parliamentary elections, the country's Reform Movement is grappling with multiple crises and could lose its overwhelming majority to rival hard-liners.
Iranian former vice president and candidate for parliamentary election Mohammad Reza Aref and his wife show their ink-stained fingers after casting their ballots during elections for the parliament and Assembly of Experts, which has the power to appoint and dismiss the supreme leader, in Tehran February 26, 2016.  REUTERS/Raheb Homavandi/TIMA  ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. - GF10000324077

Iran's Reform Movement, which holds the parliamentary majority, was dealt a severe blow May 26. Ali Motahari, an independent candidate endorsed by the camp, lost the race for deputy speaker, a position he had firmly maintained for three consecutive years. The outspoken lawmaker, known for his ferocious attacks on hard-liners, failed to garner enough votes and was replaced by the conservative camp's candidate, Abdurreza Mesri. Mesri had served as minister for welfare in ex-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's Cabinet from October 2006 to September 2009. 

Top Reformist figures largely blamed the defeat on Mohammad Reza Aref, leader of the “Hope” coalition of Reformist and centrist candidates for parliament. They accused him of being too passive during the campaign for parliament's presiding board. Gholam-Hossein Karbaschi, secretary-general of the Executives of Construction Party — the Reform Movement's largest political group — was among the very first who took aim at Aref in a sarcastic tweet: "Thanks to the relentless efforts put forward by Mr. Aref and his entourage, Ali Motahari lost the deputy speaker post."

Less than a month later, the Reformists received yet another blow. Heshmatollah Falahatpisheh lost the chairmanship of the powerful National Security and Foreign Policy Commission to hard-line cleric Mojtaba Zonnouri in an internal vote.

In the past three years, the Reform Movement has come under mounting pressure both from voters and internal critics for what is seen as a disappointing record. The camp’s lack of a coherent and transparent procedure in endorsing its list of candidates for the 2016 parliamentary polls seems to have laid the foundation for the current deep mistrust. The handling of the list triggered doubts as to whether the lawmakers who found their way into parliament under the camp's umbrella genuinely shared the key tenets of the pro-Reform Movement. Later, the performance of the Reformist-majority City Council of Tehran, in the lengthy process of appointing the mayor, added to the complications facing the embattled camp. 

With the February elections drawing closer, the Reformist camp is now scrambling to rise up and avert a humiliating defeat. In an interview with Al-Monitor, political scientist and pro-Reform pundit Sadegh Zibakalam said the camp has "serious issues.” He accused Aref — the parliament majority leader — of pursuing "no policy but silence." Zibakalam contends that Aref has not been "capable of shouldering an effective leadership role" in the parliament.

The repeated failures have created a divide within the camp. Karbaschi recently attacked the camp's structure, noting that former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami — known as the movement’s founder — had never claimed leadership, which remained an unresolved matter among Reformists. 

The remarks drew furious reactions from many who credit Khatami for the decisive victories the Reformists scored in the past four polls, namely the 2013 and 2017 presidential elections, the parliamentary vote in 2016 and the city council elections in 2017. 

Despite the growing public discontent with the economic failures of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani's administration, the embattled Reformist camp has been trying to disavow mismanagement. That, however, has done little for its public image when performance in parliament and city councils is gauged. 

Many critics are blaming the overall failure on Khatami, whose trusted closest circle endorsed and squeezed incapable candidates into the final list for parliamentary and city council polls. There are, nonetheless, voices for his vindication.

"We can’t put the entire blame on Khatami," university professor and economist Saeed Leylaz said, while admitting there is little to offer in defense of Rouhani's economic record. "The Iranian economy has been harmed less by US sanctions than by mismanagement at home. The latter has added up to the grievances," Leylaz told Al-Monitor. 

Following months of silence in the face of the camp's continuous inadequacies, Khatami recently called on Iranians to participate in the upcoming elections. "I urge people to take part once more," he said, warning that by boycotting the vote, people would only lose their influence in the political process. In earlier remarks, the former president had been expressly cynical: "Even if I ask people to participate in the vote, they will no longer do so."

It was in the run-up to the previous parliamentary election that a famous Khatami video message, which went viral on social media, encouraged the nation to vote for the Reformists' Hope list, a call that was cordially embraced by most Iranians and secured the camp the entire 30 seats in the crucial Tehran constituency.

The latest developments and the current political atmosphere surrounding the Reformist camp is reminiscent of the closure to Khatami’s presidency in late 2004 and early 2005. That's when most of his supporters expressed frustration with his unfulfilled promises on political and civil rights reforms. The weariness was evident in the 2004 parliamentary election and the 2005 presidential vote, where a significantly low turnout paved the way for landslides by conservatives. The Iranian legislative and executive bodies, consequently, fell to the full control of the most hard-line section of the rival camp. 

The Reformists' current predicaments are inarguably rooted in inefficient economic management, sanctions and public disillusionment with the crumbling 2015 nuclear deal. The performance of the camp's representatives both in parliament and on city councils has exacerbated the situation. Ironically, the Reformists have continued to disappoint the public with the proposed list that was expected to offer them “hope."

In the next tight six months, the camp has a bumpy path and a tough task ahead to rally public support and rebuild trust for reelection. Failing to do so will bring about a repeat of the 2004 nightmare for the Reformists, who will then have to tolerate a new parliament occupied by arch-rival hard-liners.