Elections in Iran offer the world a window to the workings of the country’s unique brand of democracy and can be used to gauge the pace and depth of change in the Islamic republic.
The initial analysis of the elections held on Friday, to the 88-member Assembly of Experts and the 290-member National Consultative Assembly or parliament, show the moderates gaining the upper hand over the hardliners.
The polls are significant for two reasons: First, it is the Assembly of Experts who will choose the next Supreme Leader in the event of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei passing away. Second, the polls are being seen as a referendum on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), or the Iran nuclear deal, signed in July.
The fact that moderates have done better than hardliners in many places, especially in Tehran and other urban centres, is a sign that President Hassan Rouhani’s push for economic reforms and better ties with the West has been appreciated by the middle class.
Like elections anywhere in the world there were many issues that dictated the course of the campaign and decided its outcome. The economy, jobs and the environment were among the topics discussed, but the JCPOA (signed by Iran and P5+1 nations) was the topic most hotly debated.
It would be a mistake to see the election as a dichotomous fight between moderates and hardliners: This battle was more a contest between groups backing the nuclear deal, under Mr Rouhani’s leadership, and those who opposed it.
Not all hardliners oppose the deal and not all moderates support it, but a win for the moderates was seen as important to keep the deal on track. Western observers, in particular, have spun the narrative that the JCPOA cannot be entrusted to a Tehran run by hardliners.
A win for the moderates strengthens Mr Rouhani’s hand at world forums where stability in West Asia and the future of Syria are discussed. In turn, he will be expected to help bring peace and stability to the region. Domestically, his challenge lies in how he positions the economy to gain from the lifting of sanctions.
A debate underway in Iran is about the ‘supervisory’ roles of the Assembly of Experts with respect to the Supreme Leader. While moderates like Mr Rouhani and former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani want more supervision, conservatives like the head of the judicial system, Sadeq Ardeshir Amoli Larijani, are against giving such powers to the assembly.
Some observers are of the view that with these powers the assembly would be authoritarian and power would be in the hands of a select few who are not accountable.
Democracy in Iran is very different to that practised in the West, but such debates show that far from being a rigid theocracy there are checks and balances that make Iran a bright spot in the general gloom that covers much of West Asia today.