Middle East

How Iran's 'election oven' went into meltdown

An Iranian man reads a newspaper in Tehran Image copyright EPA
Image caption Iranians have been digesting the results of the elections over the weekend

The results of two important elections in Iran are being announced and they are nothing short of a major surprise.

The picture in Tehran, the capital, is crystal clear. The pro-government parties pulled off a sweeping victory in the parliamentary election, winning all 30 seats in the capital, a humiliating total wipe out for hardliners.

This wasn't all. In the second election, candidates allied to reformist President Hassan Rouhani also prevented some key hardline figures entering the Assembly of Experts, the clerical council that is technically in charge of naming a successor to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei when he dies.

The list topping the winners for parliament is an odd coalition of centrist candidates and some previously known as hardliners. Although this last group are still socially conservative, in recent years they have supported President Rouhani's moderate policies, especially his new approach towards the outside world and reaching a deal with world powers over Iran's nuclear programme.

The Guardian Council, an unelected body that vets election candidates, disqualified almost all the well-known reformist candidates and many moderate ones. As a result, the reformist leaders resorted to the uncharted territory of backing a coalition list and asked their supporters to vote tactically.

Mass disqualifications and lack of public interest led many observers to predict a dull campaign and a one-horse race in favour of the hardline candidates.

But in the very last phase of campaign, everything changed and created another upset in Iranian politics. How did this come about?

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The leaders of 2009's "Green Revolution" helped mobilise the vote for this election (file image)

The 'English list'

A dull campaign on the streets didn't translate to a dull campaign on the Internet.

Social media provided the ground for a perfect storm.

Twenty million users of Telegram (a social network popular among Iranians of all ages), millions of Twitter activists and many more Facebook users put their arms together and didn't just heat up the "election oven" - as it's described in Iran - but pushed it into meltdown, something that no one could have imagined even until the eve of the election.

Among the factors that heated up the online campaign was the Supreme Leader himself, who, only a few days before the elections, warned voters to beware of what he called "the English list".

He accused Britain of planning to infiltrate the elections by supporting certain candidates and orchestrating a tactical vote that would prevent some ultra-conservative figures from entering the Assembly of Experts and parliament. This comment outraged many pro-government politicians, including the president himself, who described "the English list" as an insult to Iranians' intelligence.

Another unexpected push came from the leaders of the opposition movement, Mirhossein Mousavi and Mahdi Karoubi, who have been under house arrest for the past five years.

They encouraged their supporters to vote and asked authorities for ballot boxes to be brought to their houses so that they could casts their own votes - an unexpected and bold move, considering that they had been arrested in the first place after accusing the authorities of rigging the votes in controversial 2009 presidential elections.

Those polls resulted in big demonstrations across the country which were violently repressed and ended after tens of demonstrators were killed.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Ayatollah Khamenei may have a crucial role in what comes next for Iran - but thoughts are already turning to his successor

What next?

Although moderate forces and pro-government parties have gained a lot of ground in both elections, it's too early to write-off hardliners and conservatives.

First of all, they haven't done as badly in other towns and even in some bigger cities; also, it must be remembered that these results are only valid if the Guardian Council approves them.

And secondly, they still control key unelected bodies, including the Guardian Council, the judiciary and state-owned TV, as well as the armed forces, who are not accountable to any elected bodies and are not shy of interfering in the politics and taking side with hardliners.

Even blocking some hardliners from entering the Assembly of Experts won't necessarily affect the choice of a new leader if the 76-year-old Ayatollah Khamenei dies during the eight-year term of the new assembly.

Analysts say choosing a new leader will in all likelihood be deemed too important to be left to the assembly alone and may draw in other powerbrokers including the powerful Revolutionary Guards, who are only accountable to the leader.

But the results of these elections will nevertheless bring changes to Iran's politics. Mr Rouhani's moderate government will feel more confident in implementing its ambitious plans to limit the influence of unelected bodies as well as of the armed forces in politics, as well as privatisation of more of the economy.

What happens now very much depends on how successful these two camps will be in utilising what they've achieved in the elections or hold already. Ayatollah Khamenei's reaction and whom he supports will also have a critical effect on what come next.