Winters seasons that lead to elections are typically full of news in Iran. However, this March, Iran’s political sphere surprisingly lacks the enthusiasm it witnessed in previous elections. While the Reformists recently announced their re-endorsement of Hassan Rouhani for 2017 presidential elections, the rival Principlist front has yet to announce its final candidate for the competition. In the same vein, the upcoming city council elections, typically regarded of less importance compared with presidential and parliamentary elections, has hardly receive coverage from the media.
It was a few weeks ago that Fatemeh Zolghadar, Reformist MP from Tehran expressed sorrow that political parties lack a clear agenda or mechanism for both presidential and councils’ elections, calling the atmosphere “frustrating”. Then, she calls for her Reformist comrades to identify knowledgeable, efficient figures to run for city councils’ elections and warns about oversight in the competition.
The last time the bloc held the larger share of the seats in the highly politicized civil body was in its first round, in 1999, and during the height of Reformists’ popularity. A glaringly inefficient record during the first-term of the council, bound by infighting and back-to-back resignations, led to full ouster of the members by popular vote in the second city council elections in 2003 and ascension of a Principlist team to power. Ahmadinejad was elected as Tehran’s mayor by the second council and it was with their support that he managed to portray the picture of a modest, revolutionary, yet effective executive of himself, which brought him popular vote in 2005 presidential competition.
The incumbent 31-member city council, with a composition of 16 to 15 in favor of Principlists, which was elected to the body in poll simultaneous with 2013 presidential elections, has been mainly defined by the struggle between the Reformists and Principlists, revolving around the performance of Mohammad-Baqer Qalibaf, whom both sides see as a potential rival to President Hassan Rouhani in 2017 presidential elections.
Reformists, strongly critical of Qalibaf’s record in the municipality, culminating in the case of the so-called ‘astronomical real-state’ story, where members of the council, plus several well-known political and administrative figures outside the council, had benefitted staggering discount for purchasing houses in posh areas of Tehran, or the Plasco incident, collapse of Tehran's oldest high-rise buildings which led to death of at least 20 people, including 16 firefighters, are poised to wrest the council, and consequently, the mayoralty, from the hands of Qalibaf and the Principlists.
In an interview with IRNA official news agency, Gholam-Reza Ansari, second in rank of the newly-established party Ettehad-e Mellat, has spoken about the Reformists’ plans for the upcoming election for the councils, once again simultaneous with presidential elections. According to Ansari, expertise and a clean fiscal record are main criteria for selection of Reformists candidates, a response to complaints about the city council being too political, and to financial scandals surfacing every now and then in the leviathanic organization.
According to the morning daily Haft-e Sobh, names have been circulating around for the Reformist slate of the May 2017 election, some of them incumbent Reformist members of the council. The newspaper also names two likely candidates of the Reformist front for the position of Tehran mayoralty: Mohsen Hashemi Rafsanjani, the eldest son of the late patriarch Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, and Mohsen Mehr-Alizadeh, veteran technocrat with Reformist bent. The former once ran against Qalibaf in 2013 for the position, but lost the race to a single vote, notoriously after a Reformist member of the council, Elaheh Rastgrou, switched alliance and moved to Qalibaf’s camp in the last minute.
Citing the successful experience of Reformists in the tenth parliamentary election held in February 2016, where the group recorded particular success in Tehran, sending all its thirty candidates for the constituency into Majles, Haft-e Sobh says alliance between all Reformist groups, their social base, and their powerful social media platforms, may bring them victory in May 2017. If that happens, for the first time in 13 years, the parliament, the government and city councils will enjoy political alignment.