Column: Iranian elections provide hope for change

Iranian lawmakers attend an open session of the outgoing parliament in Tehran, Iran, Tuesday, March 1, 2016. A coalition of moderates and reformists gained bigger ground in the new parliament after Friday elections, the biggest presence of the camp over the past decade. The new parliament will take office in late May. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)

Iranian lawmakers attend an open session of the outgoing parliament in Tehran, Iran, Tuesday, March 1, 2016. A coalition of moderates and reformists gained bigger ground in the new parliament after Friday elections, the biggest presence of the camp over the past decade. The new parliament will take office in late May. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)

Iran recently held elections for several government bodies, including the Iranian Parliament and the Assembly of Experts. Out of 290 seats available in the Parliament, reformist candidates have been declared the winners of approximately 85 seats and about 60 seats have gone to independents.

Principlists, or hard-liners, have won 78 races while 69 seats are to be decided by runoffs in April. In the 88 seat Assembly of Experts, which is in charge of selecting the next Supreme Leader, reformists won 20 seats, hard-liners won 27 seats, independents won 6 seats, and those backed by both principlists and reformists won the remaining 35 seats. 

This is promising news for the more moderate political forces in Iran. In the Parliament, the “moderate” candidates already have a majority between the reformists and independent candidates, with most independent candidates supporting of the Iranian nuclear deal as opposed to hard-liners. The Assembly of Experts has shifted to a more moderate composition, which could potentially lead to the next Supreme Leader being one who is more open to reform.

Considering that the current Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, is 76 years old, a new Supreme Leader could be elected within the next few years. Based on the power that the Supreme Leader wields, this could be a potentially significant change if a moderate is elected. 

The moderate/reformist gains in Parliament at first glance may seem to be extremely encouraging, considering the body is the national legislative body of Iran and is in charge of drafting legislation, ratifying national treaties and approving the national budget. However, the Parliament is in reality limited by other bodies, specifically non-elected bodies. 

While Parliament is the main legislative body, the executive proposes most new laws in Iran. More importantly, all legislation from the assembly must be approved by the Guardian Council, which is composed primarily of hard-liners that are appointed by the Supreme Leader and the Head of the Judicial Power (also nominated by the Supreme Leader).

This body of unelected clerics and jurists can veto bills passed by the popularly elected legislature. In addition, they have the power to disqualify candidates from running for Parliament and regularly disqualify many reformist candidates.  

So, if the Parliament has limited power and the hard-liners dominate most of Iranian politics why are the elections significant? Well, it all starts with the Iranian nuclear deal.

The moderate president of Iran Hassan Rouhani won a political victory when the nuclear deal was approved inside of Iran. Hard-liners in Iran were opposed to the deal and tried to kill it from the start, which would have undermined the power of the president and therefore elections in Iran.

However, the deal was approved, a victory for the moderates and “democracy” in Iran (limited as it is). Despite the fact that hard-liners controlled so much of the government and principlists had a majority in the Parliament, the moderate elements of Iran were able to outmaneuver them.

The nuclear deal showed Iranians that Rouhani’s election in 2013 was not just a symbolic victory for moderates. It showed that elections could in fact change the direction of Iranian politics and policies. And the deal proved that elections do have consequences.

This demonstration of the effect that elections and therefore people can actually have on Iranian society will likely encourage more Iranians to participate. Hopefully, the more ordinary Iranians participate, the harder it will be for the government to defy popular will. 

This election does not mean that we are going to start seeing major political changes in Iran. As stated, the legislative assembly has limited power, and the control of most of the government is still in the hands of conservative forces.

But even limited power is still power. Now, President Rouhani has a majority in the Parliament that is more inclined to support his moderate agenda. This could lead to more social freedoms and a trend toward democracy for Iran. 

Any move towards democratization will take time. Even with the current makeup of Parliament the moderates/reformists will only be able to enact small changes, if any.

But if moderates keep succeeding in pushing the country toward liberty and freedom then it might not be too crazy to hope that 20 or 30 years down the line Iran isn’t the oppressive regime and threat to world peace they are today. Maybe, the opening up of relations and the slow tides of social change can transform Iran into a country of peace, similar to the former USSR.

Whatever time may bring, these election results have, at the very least, given Iranian moderates sizable momentum.


Jacob Kowalski is a staff columnist for The Daily Campus opinion section. He can be reached via email at jacob.kowalski@uconn.edu.