By Ehsan Mehrabi
June 22, 2021
Even before Ebrahim Raeesi was declared the winner of Iran’s 13th presidential election, members of the reformist camp were shoring up their options.
Shortly after the news came through, Hossein Marashi, a spokesman for the reformist Executives of Construction Party, talked about the need for “reorganization”. The journalist and activist Abbas Abdi had already said the bloc needed to prepare for a “tough political time” ahead.
Bahareh Hedayat, a campaigner for women’s rights, was more pessimistic. “All the signs of the defeat of the reformist project – in its discourse, in its organization, in its strategy and in its identity – have been evident for a long time,” she said. “The difference is that this time, we can see this failure in numbers on a scoreboard.”
Eshagh Jahangiri, President Rouhani’s vice-president and a moderate himself, was one of the hundreds disqualified by the Guardian Council in the run-up to the vote.
But even before this, some analysts had said even had he run, Jahangiri would not have had a prayer of winning the election. Raeesi held onto the votes he had won in his unsuccessful bid for the top executive role in 2017, but this time the reformist vote had all but disappeared.
Widespread disillusionment with the reformist project was partly linked to obstruction by the Supreme Leader and his cabal, and partly the record of the Rouhani administration. The 2017, 2018 and November 2019 protests fuelled both sides, as did the state’s management of Covid-19.
Some reformist party members joined in the boycott of the election. By themselves, though, they were not strong enough to make a sizeable difference to quasi-reformist Hemmati’s share of the vote. Rather it was the opposition of the Iranian people in general, and apathy and exhaustion, that lost them any ground they might have held.
Meanwhile, the conservative candidates wasted no time in blaming Abdolnasser Hemmati, a former Governor of the Central Bank under Rouhani, as one of the architects of current dismal economic situation.
Throughout the campaign season Rouhani’s government did practically nothing to advance the electoral process. Senior government officials in Iran usually involve themselves ahead of the vote, even engaging in stunts and doing “favors” to solicit people’s approval, as had happened in 2017. But this time the outgoing administration did little other than stand by and watch, not even taking the trouble to defend itself against the principalists’ accusations.
Organizational and Ideological Divides
The 2021 election also once again exposed the organizational and ideological divides between the reformists. The Executives of Construction Party now stands at one extreme while the Union of Islamic Iran People Party and the Islamic Iran Participation Front stand at the other.
Elsewhere Mohammad Khatami, the first and the last reformist president of the Islamic Republic, attempted to play the same middling role the late President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani took on before him. Behzad Nabavi, one of the spiritual fathers of the Union of Islamic Iran People Party, has now switched allegiance to the Executives of Construction Party while the National Religious Activists and the Freedom Movement, which since 2005 had drawn closer to the reformist bloc, this time boycotted the election.
Those who boycotted felt that voting was a form of capitulation. The other side, however, felt they had no choice. They are thought to account for about three million of the votes eventually cast.
In the 1997 presidential election, Mohammad Khatami received more than 20 million votes compared to his top competitor Ali Akbar Nategh Nouri’s 7.2 million. Since then, certain reformists have repeatedly maintained they were supported by 20 million voters while the principalists enjoyed the backing of around eight million.
They also believe eight million of the votes Mahmoud Ahmadinejad received in 2005 were cast by underprivileged segments of society, as were the eight million that went to Ebrahim Raeesi in 2017.
In this election, however, the votes cast for Raeesi barely changed while invalid ballots accounted for the second largest number. Third place went to Mohsen Rezaei, a former Revolutionary Guards commander, before Hemmati. The latter received fewer than three million votes in total.
In the immediate future, the self-ascribed reformists will have to deal with both ridicule and tough discussions about the bloc’s own future. During the coming “tough political time” to come, Abbas Abdi said, both the organization and approach must change.
Hossein Marashi said his Executives of Construction Party would try to “reorganize and expand”, “work with the Reformist Front Coordination Council” and “strengthen its ties with the people”.
Others, though, point out that in the eight years of Ahmadinejad’s presidency those who would see the Islamic Republic transformed from within did not change their ways. Some still believe it will be impossible to achieve anything if they are not part of the power structure – but this time, many more disagreed.
There are, similarly, two key groups that now believe the reformist movement is finished – at least, for now. The first bases its view on the miniscule number of votes cast for Hemmati. The second, on the fact that the Supreme Leader has moulded governance of the Islamic Republic in such a way that there is no room for them there anymore.