Iranian reformists won big. The coalition led by current president Hassan Rouhani and former presidents Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami secured at least 85 seats at the Majles.
The victory was particularly remarkable in Tehran, where the reformers didn’t spare any leftovers for the hardliners (they grabbed all the 30 seats in the Majles and 15 of the 16 seats in the Assembly of Experts). As 64 seats will go to the runoff, Rouhani can nevertheless count on the reformists as well as the vast majority of the 60 independents.
Two thirds of the hardliner incumbents lost their seats in the Parliament, including Gholam-Ali Haddad-Adel, who was leading the party’s list. Both ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi (current head of the Assembly of Experts) et Mohammad Taghi Mesbah Yazdi (leading hardliner theological figure) were defeated in the Assembly. The fate of Ahmad Jannati, who heads the Council of Guardians, remains unclear.
The real winner : the campaign
But the real winner in this election is the campaign. How the reformists managed to win, in the most adverse circumstances, constitutes both a lesson in politics and a testimony to Iranian politics’ endless capacity to innovate and surprise.
Whereas hardliners had months to prepare the elections, unconcerned by the Guardians’ Council disqualification process, the reformists faced susbtantial odds. As a matter of fact, their campaign, which could only be kicked off after the last results of the qualification process came out, lasted for a mere 10 to 15 days. But what could have been prohibitive for Western campaign strategists was just ordinary for Iranian politicians, who relied on the unstoppable machinery of the social media caterpillar to make gains in the last days before the polls.
By all means, this campaign was nothing like what we’re used to witness in this part of the world : no candidate travelling the country and drawing crowds in raucous rallies, no debauchery of leaftlets and campaign paraphernalia, no verbal joustling on TV or in editorials… For lack of money, and mostly of time, the Iranian reformists had to do with a few days of campaigning, just as they did in 2013. Back then, as many observers were predicting another defeat for the moderate camp, Khatami – still a widely revered figure among the Iranian youth and liberals – spoke out in favor of Rouhani only 4 days before the election. His message allegedly contributed to the current president’s final victory.
Between February 11 and 26, social media in Iran had a ball. On the 21th, Khatami posted a video of himself calling all Iranians to vote for the « list of hope ». In a few hours, everybody knew about it on the world wide web ; in less than a day, hundreds and hundreds of pastiches came out on Facebook, both circumventing and deriding the ban on his image (a few months ago, the Iranian authorities proscribed any publication of Khatami’s name or picture). Bereft of the conventional media channels (TV and radio) controlled by the Supreme Guide, the reformists took to the Internet and social media to convey their message. It took one person and one text message on Telegram, the multi-messaging app widely popular in Iran, to reach dozens, hundreds, thousands of potential supporters. Many Iranians were seen in the polling place with their phone in their hand, conscientiously copying the list of candidates sent out by a friend or a relative (in Iran, people have to write down all the names of candidates they are voting for).
In other words, virtual canvassing replaced actual canvassing, succesfullly empowering millions of young and liberal Iranians to mobilize their networks. In its urgency and its immediacy, the campaign reached its its full potential. Early and mid-day voters took selfies at the polling place, proudly wielding their ballot, and flood Instagram with those « cool » pictures, calling on their relatives and friends to follow in their footsteps.
Wounded, but standing strong
Much of the social media frenzy did not emanate in the dark rooms of party strategists’ meetings, but among the spontaneous and ever-so-creative Iranian youth. It took only a pen to draw a finger, wrapped in a band-aid but raised proudly against a green backdrop. Yet it was a matter of hours before this image – a powerful symbol of the Green Movement, wounded but standing strong – became viral and was adopted by the head of the reformists list in Tehran.
In many ways, the emergence of social media saved the reformist political class in Iran, whom the censorship on traditional media threatened to silence completely. Were it not for Facebook, Telegram, Instagram and their likes, this kind of widespread mobilization would not have happened. Even hardliners have started to grasp the strategic power of social media as the most efficient means of communication, in a society that’s increasingly disinterested in TV and radio. With 22 million Iranians using Telegram, this Russian-made app has become an indispensable feature of Iranian political life. Even the highest (and most conservative) political authorities have adopted various social media channels to communicate to their constituencies – while officially censoring them.
This 2016 campaign proved two things. One, as Iranians take to the virtual space to live, say or do what tey can’t do in the public space, the virtual campaign can not only make up for, but even outdo an actual campaign. Two, don’t ever underestimate Iranian politics, and especially its young activists working in the shadows of the virtual world : their resourcefulness, their creativity and their reactivity will continue to play a crucial role in Iranian elections.