With the dust settling on March’s Iranian parliament election, the poll suggests President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is likely to win a second term next year. Belying those who had again written him off as a lame duck, Ahmadinejad can take comfort in conservatives winning around 75% of the vote in an election where turn-out of 60% — up from 51% in 2004 — was hardly discouraged by the widespread disqualification of reformist candidates.
The president’s own supporters formed part of the United Fundamentalist Front, the largest conservative list, which was comfortably ahead of the rival Fundamentalist Front. Ahmadinejad, inexperienced when he came to office, learned from mistakes in local elections in December 2006, when supporters did poorly as a separate list, with little time to prepare for 207 constituencies.
What’s more, potential rivals to Ahmadinejad in 2009 have done little to raise their profile with the election. The exception is Ali Larijani, the former top security official and central figure in the Fundamentalist Front, who stormed to victory in the holy city of Qom. But the erudite voters of Qom hardly typify the wider Iranian electorate where Larijani’s lack of charisma counted more in his poor 2005 presidential showing — 4 million votes behind Ahmadinejad — than his lineage as the son and son-in-law of leading ayatollahs.
Neither did the reformists make much impact in parliamentary poll, although they increased their number of seats to around 50 or 60 (once the second round, on April 25, is included) from 39 in the outgoing parliament. Banned from around two-thirds of the seats, the two reformist parties — Mosharekat (Participation Front) and Etemad-e Melli (National Trust) — spent much of the campaign arguing amongst themselves.
Even in Tehran the reformists fared badly, despite reports of high turn-outs in upper-class areas that usually support them. Gholam-Ali Haddad Adel, the parliamentary speaker and a leading fundamentalist, topped the poll in the capital, and the leading 15 candidates in the city were all from the main fundamentalist list.
Gholam Hossein Karbashi, leader of the Kargozaran (Executives of Construction Party), a centrist party established by former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, blamed divisions for the reformists’ poor showing. “Despite all our efforts we were not able to motivate more than 30% of the electorate… the behavior of the reformists is partly to blame for the results — instead of uniting, they dispersed the vote [by failing to agree on a common list of candidates].”
Failure to run a common candidate in 2009 would probably doom the reformists to a result similar to 2005, when Mehdi Karrubi, Etemad-e Melli’s head and well-known as a former parliamentary leader, fell 600,000 votes short of the second-ballot run off in which Ahmadinejad defeated Rafsanjani.
Across the country, the election was fought mainly on economic and regional or local issues, not on foreign policy, where the government is seen as successful in showing the world that Iran is serious about the nuclear issue.
This is territory on which Ahmadinejad has appeared vulnerable, given that the official inflation rate is as high as 20%. But it is far from clear whether voters across the country hold the president responsible, as many areas have benefited from development schemes funded by the government from record oil receipts. Current spending for the new Iranian fiscal year will be up around 20% on last, from $253 billion to $304 billion.
Ahmadinejad’s message for the Iranian New Year outlined the themes that will dominate his re-election campaign. While acknowledging that his administration has not resolved all the economic problems of the country and conceding inflation was causing problems for “fellow Iranians,” the president promised the government had “an extensive economic development plan” to continue “massive industrial, scientific, research, economic, job-creating and cultural projects.”
He also issued a rallying cry for national resistance in the face of Western-led pressures over the nuclear programmed, emphasizing Iran was “in the middle of an all-out war,” and faced world recession as well as “the bad temper of some of our enemies” and inside the country “the mal-intent of some people.”
US conservatives — rallying around John McCain as presidential candidate — and their European allies have long seized on such rhetoric, especially over Israel, as justification for punishing Iran through UN and other sanctions. Hence, the prospect of Ahmadinejad’s re-election — and possible undermining of the argument that Iran should be engaged — is for them hardly unpalatable.
Continuing the international stand-off also seems to suit Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, who praised the turn-out in the parliamentary election as “legendary,” since voters had “prevailed over the wily enemy,” a reference to western accusations that the poll was unfair, the result being to help but keep the initiative with Ahmadinejad.
Gareth Smyth was the Financial Times Tehran correspondent and is now based in London.