In May 2016, the Reformist Hope faction participated in its first intra-parliamentary vote, for speaker, a few months after its overwhelming victory in legislative elections. Mohammad Reza Aref, head of the List of Hope, a coalition of Reformists and moderates supporting President Hassan Rouhani, lost his bid for the speakership. Instead, Ali Larijani, the conservative who had long held the post, was re-elected with 173 votes to Aref’s 103.
Aref’s allies, however, won two deputy speakership positions, with Masoud Pezeskhian, representing Tabriz, becoming first vice speaker, and Ali Motahari, a moderate conservative, becoming second vice speaker. For political analysts, the vote set the record straight in terms of the political weight that each group rightly wielded in the legislature.
The Reformists appeared to accept Larijani as parliament speaker after the 2016 vote, but as this year’s intra-parliamentary elections drew near in late May, rumors began to circulate about Aref again entering the race against Larijani. The reports surprised everyone, including the Reformists, who were themselves critical of Aref’s performance in parliament. In their opinion, he had been too quiet and a failure as the Reformists’ parliamentary leader. Why then did the Reformists decide to challenge Larijani in 2018?
The move appears to have been related to what had been speculation about a possible coalition of Reformists and hard-liners. The hard-liners, the smallest faction in the parliament, were pushed to the sidelines in 2016. Larijani, however, could not maintain his grip on parliament’s top post without their support. The hard-liners therefore presumably decided to form an odd and unexpected coalition with their Reformist rivals behind the scenes.
According to media reports, the hard-liners agreed to abstain from voting for Larijani in return for a deputy speakership, most likely Motahari’s, if the Reformists won the vote. Unconfirmed reports claimed that the Reformists were also willing to give the hard-liners other positions on parliament’s permanent steering board, such as secretary and supervisor.
Thus, on May 30, in the election for the speakership, Larijani competed against Aref and the hard-liners’ candidate, Hamid Reza Hajibabai, who had served as education minister during President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad 's second term (2009-2013). The first round of voting ended with Aref in the lead with 114 votes, Larijani in second place with 101 votes and Hajibabai trailing with 54 votes, requiring another round of voting. In the second round, as expected, the hard-liners withdrew from the race, with Hajibabai stepping aside — but, as it turns out, in favor of Larijani. The vote ended with Larijani securing a shaky victory, with 147 votes to Aref’s 123.
After the vote, the Reformist Mostafa Kavakebian voiced his displeasure with what had occurred. “The withdrawal of Hajibabai, especially while announcing his support for someone else, was illegal,” Kavakebian charged. “We knew of course that these friends would not stay [on the agreed path] until the end of the road, and we had predicted this situation.” Kavakebian’s remarks thus confirmed that the Reformists and hard-liners had in fact colluded prior to the vote.
Parliamentary reporter Mehdi Ghadimi, who had previously worked for the Reformist Shargh Daily, told Al-Monitor, “You could predict that this would be the fate of the behind-the-scenes coalition between the Hope faction and the hard-liners from the start. The hard-liners started this game for their own personal benefit and played the Reformists in the process. Their proposal to the Reformists showcased them in front of Larijani. Before this, Larijani did not take them too seriously. But now, they have reminded him that if it were not for them, he would no longer be speaker, and with this, they can gain more leverage in parliament.”
Another important factor is that many Reformists do not view Aref as having the ability to be a capable speaker. His lack of action over the past two years had gained him the moniker “the silent politician,” and now, with this odd gamble, he has added yet another defeat to his own and the Reformists’ record in parliament.
Not everyone, however, shares this perspective. On May 31, Shargh ran “The List of Hope’s Power Maneuvering,” an article in which it claimed that the Reformists, through a well-played performance, had surprised their competition, including Larijani, and for the first time in 10 years had seriously challenged him for the speakership.
On the same day, Etemad, another Reformist daily, published the front-page story “‘Hope’ Shines,” wherein it likened the intra-parliamentary elections to the military command “As you were,” adding that the elections had shocked various political players. Meanwhile, on June 1, Shafaqna reported that Aref was preparing for the 2021 presidential elections, and this is why he had considered forming an inclusive Reformist party.
Reports of the latter are nothing new. It has been speculated for years that Aref would again run for the presidency after Rouhani’s term ends. During the 2013 presidential elections, Aref, under pressure from Reformist figures, reluctantly withdrew his candidacy in the final days leading up to the vote. In a statement when he withdrew, Aref made his discontent known by refusing to mention Rouhani’s name and saying that he was stepping aside at the request of former Reformist President Mohammad Khatami, who did not see his continued participation in the elections as expedient.
Although Aref’s role in Rouhani’s 2013 victory cannot be denied, his performance in parliament since that time has raised concerns, especially among Reformists, about his ability to attract votes as well as his competence to serve as president.
Nonetheless, the developments surrounding the internal parliamentary vote could indeed indicate the beginning of Aref’s 2021 presidential bid. If so, it will not be an easy path for him, as he will face broad challenges to his authority and leadership, in particular from a powerful Reformist rival, Eshagh Jahangiri, the current first vice president.