Reformists win big during recent Iranian election

Candidates backing reform have made impressive gains in municipal elections across the country, including its capital, Tehran.

Vahid Salemi/AP
Voters line up to get ballots to cast for the presidential and municipal councils election as some of them work with their cell phones in a polling station in Tehran, Iran, on Friday.

Candidates backing reform of Iran’s clerically overseen government swept municipal elections in Tehran, taking all 21 local council seats in the country’s capital while moderate President Hassan Rouhani won a second term in office, authorities said on Monday.

Their win in Friday’s election marks the first time reformists have gained total control of Tehran’s municipal council since such votes began in the Islamic Republic in 1999. Iranian media also reported similar big gains for reformists in other major cities.

While their powers are limited to local affairs, the councils represent direct control of governance by Iran’s 80 million people. Having reformists take control signals a groundswell of support for slowly changing the way government works in Iran, and reflects growing discontent with the country’s hard-liners.

“They are tired from 40 years of conservatives’ management style,” said Soroush Farhadian, a Tehran-based political analyst who backs reformists. “People voted for reformists to make their lives happier.”

Municipal councils govern across Iran’s major cities down to its smallest villages, with members serving four-year terms. They choose mayors and decide on budgets and development projects, as well as oversee local cultural and religious activities.

While leaving day-to-day operations to mayors, the councils play an important role in local oversight of municipal activities. In Friday’s election, over 265,400 candidates competed for some 127,600 municipal seats.

In Tehran, Iranian state television reported Monday that Mohsen Hashemi Rafsanjani, a son of the influential late former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, won more than 1.7 million votes to come in first among the council candidates. Mr. Rafsanjani’s vote total surpassed all the votes received in Tehran by hard-line cleric Ebrahim Raisi in his failed presidential bid against Rouhani.

The sweep means reformists can replace Tehran Mayor Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf, who had been a presidential candidate before withdrawing to support Raisi. Mr. Qalibaf and other Tehran officials had faced criticism in recent weeks over a massive January fire at a historic high-rise that caused the building to collapse, killing 26 people, including 16 firefighters.

In Tehran, the city budget reaches into the billions of dollars, making such municipal council seats very powerful. Meanwhile, others have used Tehran city positions as a means to enter national politics. Hard-liner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was Tehran’s mayor just before becoming president in 2005.

Those upset over losing their Tehran council seats apparently convinced authorities to launch a recount. However, reports on Monday suggested the results would stand.

Mr. Rouhani, a cleric whose administration struck the 2015 landmark nuclear deal with world powers, decisively won a second term in Friday’s election. His success at the polls likely carried reformist candidates to victory in other municipal elections as well.

The reformist daily newspaper Shargh said reformists were also leading in other major Iranian cities like Isfahan, Kerman, Mashhad, Semnan, Shiraz, Tabriz, and Zahedan. Each province’s governor announces the final results of the municipal elections and tallying results from those votes always take more time than presidential polls.

Municipal councils have been in Iran’s constitution since after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. However, councils weren’t implemented until reformist President Mohammad Khatami took power in the 1990s, following a series of riots across small towns and cities in Iran over local control.

The councils have opened up Iran’s political system in the time since. While authorities have blocked women from running for president, female councilors are common on municipal councils. In Friday’s election, 415 women won seats on councils in Iran’s Sistan and Baluchistan province, according to the semi-official ISNA news agency.

“The local council elections symbolized a greater shift towards the belief that ultimate power is derived from the people, and not from divine authority,” an academic paper on Iranian municipal councils from 2003 reads. “This very notion undermines the claims and diminishes the power of some conservative elements in the regime.”

But hard-liners still wield power in other ways in modern Iran. One of the authors of that 2003 paper, Iranian-American Siamak Namazi, is now imprisoned with his octogenarian father Baquer on 10-year prison sentences for “cooperating with the hostile American government.”

Jon Gambrell reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

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