A funny thing happened on the way to this week’s parliamentary and Assembly of Experts elections in Iran. Consensus unexpectedly broke out across Iran’s fractious political scene as the country’s embattled reformists joined forces with moderate principlists in a campaign strategy designed to hold the line against — if not completely eliminate — the radical fringe on either flank of the political spectrum. Those hard-liners won just 68 seats — down from the 112 seats they currently hold in the 290-seat Majlis, or parliament, and the results so far for the Majlis elections indicate that reformists and moderates won the most seats, with 85 and 73 respectively.
These elections marked the further consolidation of the centrist moment in Iranian politics heralded by Hassan Rouhani’s presidential victory in 2013, itself the culmination of the aborted Green Wave coalition led by Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi in 2009.
The key instrument in this process was the announcement of the List of Hope alliance led by the candidacies of Ali Motahari and Mohammad Reza Aref, erstwhile political rivals on the same slate of legislative candidates. This overlap signaled the emergence of coalition politics as a possible solution for the perils of presidential politics in Iran, an outcome not at all unlike what is already taking place in Brazil and post-Pinochet Chile.
In the absence of a proper party system, it is the party list — distributed by text and by Telegram app, copied out by hand, and debated endlessly on sidewalks and in random encounters across the country — that is likely to bring Iranians together in unity. The list plays a powerful role in organizing the votes (if not the thoughts) of Iran’s 53 million eligible voters, 3 million of whom will have voted this year for the first time. Even with the disqualification of most of the 12,000-plus people who signed up for the parliamentary elections and nearly 80 percent of the candidates for the Assembly of Experts, voters in Tehran faced the daunting task of choosing 30 names from 1,121 names for the Majlis alone.
Everywhere I went in Tehran last week, I heard the same theme: moderation and standing firm before the forces of radicalism. My interlocutors expressed a sense of resignation if not outright cynicism toward the elections and what they might bring in terms of needed change to Iran. Participants in Iranian elections realize that this is not liberal democracy. At the same time, just as they had in 2013, many Iranians expressed to me their overwhelming conviction that voting was the only way forward if Iran wanted to avoid the fate of its neighbors in the region, above all that of Syria. Participating in a system, no matter how flawed, was better than having no system at all.
In the mind of the voter, compromise and congeniality between the left and the right is as much a strategic choice as a genuine flourishing of good feelings, a creative end-run around a truculent Guardian Council that steadfastly continues to deny the free and full participation of reformists in Iran’s electoral system. Blocked from the ballot and forced to play the political game on an uneven playing field, reformists were left with little choice by the Guardian Council in its role as gatekeeper but to form alliances across the ideological divide as a way to overcome formal barriers to participation, in the process facilitating their movement to the political center.
Iran, in other words, is becoming more democratic in spite of itself. If the line against radicalism holds, as it already appears to have held based on early results from Iran, the story of these elections will be how, in one of the great ironies of Iran’s post-revolutionary political development, the intransigence of the Guardian Council helped provide the necessary basis for the formation of a more tolerant and pluralist politics in Iran.
The campaign against radicalism has not gone unchallenged by the Iranian hard line. The list was announced on the Saturday before the elections — Iranian campaigns are impossibly short by American standards. By Tuesday, the hard-liner principlist organs had denounced the “30 + 16” slate as the “English list,” made in the United Kingdom by government scribes working out of the offices of BBC Persian. This incredible, if not unsurprising, charge was quickly met with derision by the center-right, including an incredulous Motahari, who denounced the cry and hue of outlets such as the Kayhan and Ettelaat newspapers as little more than “charlatanism.”
The hapless response to the consolidation of the centrist vote neatly captured the basic dilemma faced by Iran’s hard-liners and regime stalwarts. Troubled by the burden of producing a high turnout, the state expects (but does not officially require) its citizens to vote as an expression of national unity, but that vote necessarily passes through division. The use of elections to project strength to Western audiences, each vote “a bullet to the heart of the enemy,” necessarily falls apart in the rough and tumble of electoral politics and the competition for supporters.
Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, went so far as reiterate his stunning insistence, originally made in the final days of the 2013 presidential election, on the importance of every Iranian vote, “even those who don’t believe in the system and the leadership … as the election belongs to the nation, and the system.” Nonetheless, not even the leader could ignore the terms of an election that had deviated from the official narrative of national unity in favor of political temperance formed from below.
Playing off the compound construction of the term for moderate (mianroh) in Farsi, literally “middle” (mian) of the “path” (roh), in speech delivered last Wednesday, Khamenei delivered a clear rebuke of moderate and radical as paired oppositions. “In Islam, there is no such division, and moderation means ‘direct path,’ he proclaimed. “Therefore, what is opposite to the moderate path is not radicalism, but deviants from the direct path…. On the direct line, some people may go faster and some more slowly.”
Writing in the late 1950s, Anthony Downs posited that in an open competition for votes, voters and politicians would congregate at the center of the political spectrum, a salutary convergence around the middle vote. Iranians appear to be securing a similar outcome, bringing stability to a famously raucous domestic system by suspending competition between ideological rivals and challengers to power, fashioning a center by jerry-rigging the competition for votes from above.
If in the United States there is growing evidence that the American political system is tearing apart at the ends, leading to an ever-quickening disintegration of the center, then Iran presents a case of polarization giving way to politics turning inward, achieving the same result anticipated by Downs but by other means. By seeking shelter and stability in the middle of the road, ordinary and elite participants in these latest elections remind us that politics continues to exist in Iran, despite the odds, on a trajectory that may yet prove propitious for democracy.
Shervin Malekzadeh is a visiting assistant professor at Swarthmore College.