The re-election of Ali Larijani as the speaker of the Parliament is a sign of Rouhani’s victory in the last parliamentary elections. It consequently strengthens the idea that the center of gravity of Iranian politics is shifting towards the center.
Three months after the first round of the parliamentary elections, we now know the names of the lawmakers seating in the Majles. The stats of the 10th legislature are the following: out of 290 representatives, 178 are newcomers (yielding a renewal rate of more than 75%), 17 are women, establishing a new record since the Islamic Revolution, 31 are retired, 50 are teachers and professors and the clerics totaled only 5 members. Education levels in the new assembly are particularly high, with 146 holding a Master’s degree and 111 a PhD, and the average member of parliament is around 50 years old. The list of Hope, a coalition of Reformists and Moderate Conservatives led by Rouhani, Rafsanjani and Khatami, obtained 150 seats, allowing for only slightly more than 100 seats left in the hardliners’ hands.
After several weeks of intense speculations, the speaker of the Majles has finally been chosen. Ali Larijani, the incumbent head of Parliament, has been re-elected in this position for the third time in a row. Surprisingly, 50 representatives endorsed by the list of Hope preferred Larijani to Mohammad Reza Aref, who headed the list of Hope in the Tehran constituency.
What can and should be inferred from this election? Aref’s peers – among whom representatives who were elected on his list – probably determined he would be unable to do the job: making one’s way among the different factions and coining momentary but necessary alliances for votes in Parliaments requires real knowledge of the system. A former reformist candidate to the presidential election of 2013, Aref had finally renounced to run and endorsed Rouhani, but he did not manage to convince his peers of his ability to lead the new legislature. Instead, Larijani, a true strategic mastermind, has developed over the years a real capability to adapt to any situation and accept compromises since 2008. This constitutes a first-class asset for any politician willing to head a legislative body, even more so in the Iranian political context.
That’s why the parliamentary group emerging out of the list of Hope decided not to support their leader Aref and backed Larijani instead, the same way they had done it during the campaign. As Mehdi Kouchakzadeh, the former hardline leader who lost his seat in Parliament, put it (in his own words): “it makes no difference that the position of speaker of the Assembly be reached either by the reformist [sic.] leader in Qom, Larijani, or by the reformist leader in Tehran, Aref”
The rejection of Aref’s candidacy as the speaker of the Majles does not mean the Reformists underwent a defeat, as some have pointed it out. First, Larijani was the list of Hope’s leader in his Qom constituency as he has maintained close ties to Rouhani. He masters the conservative political environment well enough to manage the process of building legislative alliances in order to help the government pass its bills in Parliament. Second, it takes only a quick look at the board of the Majles to understand that the Reformists have managed to build a stronghold, as Shargh wrote:
“After several rounds of negotiations, the Conservatives close to Larijani obtained 5 out of 12 of the board’s seats (the speaker, two secretaries and two observers). The list of Hope secured 5 seats as well (two deputy speakers, two secretaries and one observer). However, the other Conservatives gathered in the Peydari coalition (Front of the Islamic Revolution Stability) gained only two seats.”
It should also be noted that the first deputy speaker, Masoud Pezeshkian, is an authentic reformist whereas the second deputy speaker, Ali Motahari is a moderate conservative who joined Rouhani’s coalition.
Beyond the symbolic weight of his 3rd re-election, Larijani’s victory (237 votes out of 290, a historical first) signals a real change: a shift of Iranian politics towards the center. The disqualification of female Reformist representative Minoo Khalegi, justified by the Guardian Council by her bareheaded appearance in public and her having shaken hands with men in Europe, was condemned not only by Rouhani but also by Larijani and Motahari – three Conservatives who now lead the Reformist coalition. On one hand, Larijani knows perfectly well that he would have never been elected speaker without the Reformists’ support and Khatami’s help, the only ones who can boast of true grassroots support. On the other hand, Reformists are aware that creating a new coalition encompassing the Moderates, with Larijani at the top, constitutes the only way to defeat hardliners.
In any case, Rouhani managed to gather an undeniable majority in Parliament. Even if only 105 representatives attended the first parliamentary group meeting of the list of Hope, they were 158 to vote in favor of Pezeshkian, the deputy speaker allied to Rouhani. This is the figures one should bear in mind if one wants to get the whole picture of today’s Majles – a parliament that will help the administration pass new bills and strengthen its political decisions. In the worst case scenario, no political group will be able to whip enough votes to jeopardize the Vienna agreement on the Iranian nuclear program or Rouhani’s diplomatic choices. In the best case scenario, the president will be able to fully implement his agenda of economic reforms in order to secure his re-election in June 2017.
In addition, the election of Ahmad Jannati (spearhead of Iranian Conservatives and already chairman of the Guardian Council) as the head of the Assembly of Experts triggered a series of anxious commentaries by Western analysts, who saw in this election another victory for hardliners. Instead of focusing on Jannati, they would have better listened to Rafsanjani’s statement who explained that he will have as much influence as a simple member of the Assembly as he would have had as a chairman.
The truth is simple: Rafsanjani’s influence on the political scene is firm and wide enough so that he doesn’t need to worry about the Assembly of Experts’ chair. With 2.3 million popular votes backing him (Jannati got only 1.3 million votes), he is yielding enough power and popularity. Let us remember Jannati managed to win this election with only 51 votes, which seems to be the maximum number of votes the hardliners will ever obtain in this Assembly (if Rouhani or Rafsanjani had run for this position, Jannati would have suffered an overwhelming defeat). As a matter of fact, 51 votes will not be enough to elect the next Supreme Leader since the required majority is as high as 58. All in all, Rafsanjani and Rouhani have cleverly chosen not to squander their energy and political resources to get elected to a position with no real importance in an institution without considerable executive power.
A year before the presidential election, the structure of the Iranian political spectrum has achieved a long-coming overhaul. What happened at the Majles and at the Assembly of Experts only highlighted the strength of the centrist coalition, led by Rouhani, Rafsanjani and Larijani, at the expense of hardliners.