With the Iranian public's growing discontent with moderate President Hassan Rouhani, the country's Reformists are trying to keep him at arm's length. But this has done little to appease voters who blame most of the government inadequacies in recent years on the political behavior of the Reform movement.
The last litmus test for Reformists came in 2017 when they took over city council seats in the capital Tehran and other major constituencies after landslide victories in local polls held in parallel with the presidential vote.
But criticism was already there even in the run-up to the elections against the Reformists' proposed list of candidates, known as the List of Hope, enthusiastically endorsed by the movement's leader, Mohammad Khatami, who urged the nation through widely circulated video messages to write all the names of Reformist candidates on the ballot papers. However, it turned out later that inclusion on the list had not been based necessarily on the movement's common criteria. There were even claims that some individual candidates had offered bribes in their effort to squeeze themselves into the list. This created some level of public distrust concerning the listed names.
On the other hand, the latest political and executive background of some candidates in the proposed list dealt a heavy blow to the Reformist camp's political image and resume. As opposed to what they portrayed themselves as being, those candidates proved little adherence to the original ideals of Iran's Reform movement once they secured their seats.
From the very outset, it was more than evident that a Tehran City Council fully dominated by Reformists could pose challenges to the camp itself. As time went by, the situation was exacerbated. Some members acted as incompetent pseudo-Reformists, triggering public dissatisfaction with the movement as a whole.
Earlier in the 2016 parliamentary elections, Reformists managed to secure a majority but have since failed to fulfill voter expectations. The parliament's Hope faction, representing the elite Reformists led by Mohammad Reza Aref, who swept 1.6 million votes in Tehran, has demonstrated a disappointing performance. Aref himself has served as the key target of political jokes among Iranians. His passivity in parliamentary decision-making has won him the satirical nickname the "silent politician."
The trust deficit with which Reformists are grappling is also partly blamed on Rouhani. Beyond doubt, Rouhani owes much of his two election wins to the relentless support from the Reformist camp. Yet he has been sidelining most of the senior camp members, refusing to incorporate them in his administrations. Even in rare cases where he embraced such figures — including First Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri — their executive powers have been shrinking day by day.
Now, the Reformists are starting to gradually distance themselves from the Rouhani administration and dodge responsibility for his perceived failures. That trend might speed up in the run-up to the 2021 presidential vote, but it is highly unlikely that the Iranian public would recognize those pushes by Reformists. In fact, the steps are being taken too late as the damage has already been done. Furthermore, even the very few senior Reformists within the government have displayed no markedly different performance from the rest of the administration. To mobilize the public opinion against rival Reformists, hard-liners have managed to further damage their already tarnished reputation through wide-reaching campaigns — including on social media. Reports on fraud and corruption committed by Reformists while in power have also increased public disillusionment and distrust in them.
And last but not least, to bypass the Guardian Council’s vetting and win seats, the camp has turned to little-known figures rather than genuine and established Reformists. To voters' dismay, many of these figures have not only brought the camp little achievement but have also eroded trust.
A top thinker of the movement seems to have clearly discerned the Reformists' challenges. "In the political market, we cannot afford to buy fake commodities. The path toward reforms does not necessarily have to go through the ballot box," Saeed Hajjarian said in an interview last December. Suggesting an election boycott when candidates are not true Reformists, he added, "If we are not backed by enough power in politics, we have to stay away from it, because Reform cannot be done with [political] charity."
This view, however, is not shared by most senior Reformists who argue that boycott is not an option as it only facilitates the victory of hard-line rivals. Abdolvahed Mousavi Lari, who served as Khatami's interior minister (1998-2005) dismissed the idea, noting that it does not reflect the movement's overall policy.
In spite of all that, the Reform movement's key strength has been unified leadership. In the aftermath of the disputed 2009 presidential elections, Khatami has remained the sole leader recognized by all and disputed by none of the senior figures within the camp.
Nevertheless, consecutive landslide electoral wins from 2013 to 2017 seem to have made even Khatami too proud. The outcomes of the Reformist leader's decisions bear no signs of regard for criticism and discontent from the majority of top Reformist figures.
In a public letter in June 2018, 100 young members of the camp lambasted what they deemed the rising influence of conservative elements inside the Reformists’ Supreme Council for Policy-Making. They urged reforms within the Reform movement and called for the setup of a new national entity to organize the camp. The signees also warned Khatami that the ongoing trend will pose a threat to his own name and fame to the extent that his calls for the public to vote for his endorsed candidates may no longer be heeded.
As such, the current political atmosphere in Iran is reminiscent of the developments that characterized the later period of Khatami's presidency from 2004 to 2005, when most Iranians were disappointed by the Reformist administration's performance. The frustration against the Reform movement was exhibited in a low turnout in the 2004 parliamentary polls and later in the 2005 presidential elections, paving the way for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — then favored by the country's hard-liners — to sweep votes on a populist platform.
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