Iran held its 10th parliamentary elections March 2, the country's first nationwide political contest since the controversial 2009 presidential election. Because most of the reformist candidates had been disqualified, the elections were essentially a showdown between Iran's two dominant conservative camps: the populists, led by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and candidates supporting the clerical establishment, led by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Both sides needed a strong voter turnout and a clear margin of victory so that they could point to the election results as evidence that the public supports their respective policies. But despite reports of widespread election fraud and exaggerated turnouts, neither the populist candidates nor the pro-clerical elite was able to claim a decisive victory. The election served as a check on Ahmadinejad's ambitions, and the structural advantages of the office of the supreme leader will help Khamenei as he seeks a decisive strike against Ahmadinejad.
In the March 2 elections, Iran's pro-clerical conservatives failed to re-establish the dominant majority they enjoyed in the 8th (2004-2008) and 9th (2008-2012) Majlis, or parliament. Meanwhile, Ahmadinejad's populist conservatives managed to win more seats than in previous elections but failed to secure the decisive victory they needed to entrench themselves in the government.
While both sides needed and pushed for strong voter turnout, the highest levels of electoral participation were in Iran's rural and provincial regions, which have historically supported Ahmadinejad and his allies. That this turnout did not translate into significantly higher numbers of Ahmadinejad's allies in parliament is almost certainly due to electoral manipulation by Khamenei's supporters. (Even Ahmadinejad's sister Parvin failed to win a seat representing the family's hometown of Garmsar.) Despite the apparent electoral fraud, the widespread apathy of the Iranian electorate toward the intra-conservative rift means protests on the scale of the 2009 Green Revolution are unlikely.
The biggest change was in the number of seats gained by independent candidates, something not seen since the Islamic republic's inception. The pro-clerical Osoolgaran (United Principalists Front) reported that independents secured 34 percent of the parliamentary seats, though Stratfor's Iranian sources estimated that the number was closer to 40 percent. Since the overwhelming majority of these independent candidates hail from the provinces as opposed to large urban centers, and the political allegiances of many of them are unknown, the impact of this development is not yet clear. What is clear is that both conservative camps will try to win the support of as many independent lawmakers as possible in the upcoming parliament.
Ali Larijani, the current Majlis speaker and a staunch ally of the clerical elite, was re-elected, but already there have been calls for others to step into the role of parliamentary speaker. Chief among Larijani's possible replacements is Gholam Ali Haddad Adel, who previously held the position during the 8th Majlis. Haddad Adel currently serves as the supreme leader's adviser on foreign affairs, and his daughter is married to Khamenei's son Mojtaba.
Should Larijani be replaced by Haddad Adel, a trusted confidant of Khamenei, it would allow Larijani to run for president in 2013, a move that, if successful, would significantly strengthen the position of Khamenei. Two of Larijani's brothers, Sadeq and Mohammad Javad, already serve as the head of the judiciary and as the supreme leader's national security adviser, respectively.
In the meantime, the current parliament is using the time it has left to try to crush Ahmadinejad and his bloc. The Majlis accused Ahmadinejad on March 5 of failing to deposit billions of dollars in oil-exporting revenues in the treasury. The accusation comes as Ahmadinejad is expected to appear before the Majlis for questioning related to two members of his circle who are accused of embezzling billions of dollars through bank fraud as well as to answer to criticisms of his handling of the Iranian economy. Mehr news agency reported that Ahmadinejad plans to appear before the Majlis by March 9.
Both Ahmadinejad and Khamenei will have to assume a holding pattern in the immediate future. While the current Majlis can issue a procedural slap against Ahmadinejad as his term winds down, the embattled Iranian president is unlikely to be dismissed, since that could trigger an outpouring of support from the rural poor.
It is to Ahmadinejad's advantage that his term extends past the current legislative session. If he can hold on until May, Iran will be in a new legislative session. The presence of so many independents in the next Majlis might be a boon to Ahmadinejad, or at the very least it could be an impediment for the pro-clerical elites, something of which the president could take advantage.
Both sides will fight to win the votes of the independent bloc, and Ahmadinejad will have to scramble to secure his base ahead of the 2013 presidential elections. Since Ahmadinejad's two preferred successors, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei and Ali Akbar Javanfekr, will probably be banned from running, the president must move swiftly and quietly to groom a new politician to take his place. Aside from the fact that his term will continue after the current parliament has left office, Ahmadinejad also has an advantage in that he controls a significant amount of money from oil revenues, which could be used to purchase the votes and support of provincial independent lawmakers.
The struggle for influence between the two camps of Iranian conservatives will continue, but the populists' position has been weakened a bit by the parliamentary elections. The president and the supreme leader will continue to compete for credit with regard to who finally brings the United States to the negotiating table on Iran's terms or establishes direct communications, even though under the current constitution the final say in foreign policy matters lies firmly in the supreme leader's hands.
The parliamentary elections were the first major instance of intense, drawn-out political infighting between the conservatives. Khamenei needs a pliant president and speaker — Larijani and Haddad Adel, if Khamenei has his way — to support his position and rout the independent, anti-clerical elements led by Ahmadinejad. The president is desperate to preserve his political legacy, and if his faction is to stand any chance in 2013 and beyond, he will have to establish a viable minority presence in the upcoming parliament.