THE clerics disqualified the candidates, but they could not disqualify the people. So long were the queues outside many polling stations that Iran’s election commission postponed closing five times. Secular Iranians with pink hairdos stood in line waiting to vote against the mullahs. When a self-important hardline politician tried to queue-jump, they booed him to the back of the line.
In Jamaran, the Tehran district where Ayatollah Khomeini once berated western Satans, citizens cheered the architects of Iran’s overtures to the West as they came to vote. Muhammad Zarif, the foreign minister who negotiated the nuclear deal, got polite applause. A former president, Muhammad Khatami, who is perhaps Iran’s most popular politician despite being banned from state media, won a hero’s cheer.
By contrast, the turnout in south Tehran, a poorer, more conservative place, seemed dismal. Voters queued for hours in the north, but registered their ballots in the south within minutes. Organisers in the mosques which doubled as polling stations tried to rally their flock. They pinned posters in their porticos mocking America’s president, Barack Obama, and played nationalist songs over loudspeakers.
The Council of Guardians, a body packed with the Supreme Leader’s followers, had done its best to rig the results in advance. They had banned most reformist candidates for the Majlis, or parliament, and for a body of Shia clerics, the Assembly of Experts, who select the Supreme Leader. But the reformists outsmarted them. They compiled lists of those who remained, and when they had run out of their own candidates, filled them with the most innocuous of their rivals. They cut deals with pragmatic conservatives, like parliament’s speaker, Ali Larijani, whose deputy appeared on Tehran’s reformist list.
The upshot was a “List of Hope”, that was reformist in parts. Sometimes voters had a choice only between hardline and moderate conservatives. Many candidates appeared on both the List of Hope and the hardliners’ list. “We didn’t know half the people on the list, and the half we did know we didn’t like,” said a Tehran businessman. “But if you want change in the Middle East, you have two choices—reform what you can, or follow Syria.”
In the capital the List of Hope won all 30 parliamentary seats and all but one of the 16 Assembly of Experts seats. Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani, who has openly questioned the system of a single Supreme Leader, came first; Hassan Rohani, the president, third. Eight of the 30 were women. The reformist list won majorities in other cities including Isfahan, which hardliners had swept in 2012. In the Assembly of Experts, out went harshly pious hardline icons including Ayatollah Muhammad Yazdi, the current head of the body, and Muhammad Taghi Mesbah Yazdi, the Revolution’s chief surviving theorist. It was, as President Rohani put it, a demonstration of people power. “They said in a loud voice: ‘We want interactions with the world, not confrontation.”’
Given the overlap between the lists, the results are not quite so clear-cut. On a rough assessment of the 216 seats that were decided (69 have been pushed to a run-off round in late spring and five are reserved for minorities), the conservatives won just under half, far worse than their tally at the previous election in 2012. The reformists got almost 40%, up from about 10%. So independents, including Mr Larijani, will hold the balance of power.
That should give Mr Rohani more room for manoeuvre to push through the laws he needs to open Iran for foreign investment and claw back some of the assets Iran’s big conglomerates, controlled by clerics and Revolutionary Guards, amassed when Iran was cut off from the world. Most independents will depend on his budget if they want to bring roads and other goodies to their provinces.
But parliament will also be a chaotic place. Having culled each other’s upper tiers, both parliamentary factions look rudderless. Mr Rohani, a consummate centrist, must decide whether to concentrate on the economy, as the Supreme Leader wants, or to pursue social change, as his supporters want. He has yet to keep his promise to release political dissidents incarcerated after the 2009 elections.
The situation with the new Council of Experts is equally murky, but crucial. It will hold office until 2024. Since Mr Khamenei is 76, it may well have to choose his successor as Supreme Leader. It, too, has shifted in a more moderate direction, which could presage a battle of critical importance to Iran’s future if the time should come for it to perform its task.
The conservative establishment is far more powerful than the president. The Supreme Leader can veto laws. Judges and Revolutionary Guards do his bidding. Isolation has served the hardliners well, allowing them to muscle into sectors, particularly oil, previously filled by foreigners. While Mr Zarif, Mr Rohani’s foreign minister, was meeting his American counterpart, the hardliners tested a ballistic missile to spoil the mood. Conservative goons have arrested western journalists and businessmen, presumably to undermine Mr Rohani’s diplomacy towards the West. The day Britain reopened its visa section in Tehran they put up a billboard of the Queen in a nearby square, showing her with the snout of a camel.
But they are a little less rigid than they used to be. Nudged by the Supreme Leader, who prefers to hide behind his president, even some of the hardest-liners approved last summer’s nuclear deal, and many, like Mr Larijani, have tacked to the centre. Muatalifa, a conservative faction, holds senior posts in Mr Rohani’s own staff. The morality police have stopped barging into people’s homes and offices quite so often.
The difference between the two electoral lists is muddier than it appears. Conservatives may denounce their opponents as western stooges; reformists may mutter that the conservatives are the Shia equivalent of Islamic State. But in reality hardline and softer clerics intermarry, shift positions, and hedge their bets to keep power, says an Ayatollah in Qom who was once Ayatollah Khomeini’s Guardian Councillor, and is now one of the Supreme Leader’s turbulent priests. The views of voters count for far less than they should in Iran, but they do count for something.