The Composition of the Tenth Majles and the Geography of Political Bases in Iran

2016/04/24
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Nabz-Nameh April 2016

Iran is a vast country and diverse in its ethnic, religious, and cultural makeup. Given this scale, the demands, problems, and political persuasions of people vary from one part of the country to another. Restrictions on civic and political activities and on the freedoms of expression and assembly have prevented elected bodies, such as the Majles, from truly reflecting the political views of the Iranian people. Yet diversity can be seen even within this limited framework.

Mapping the results of the Majles elections offers a more effective way to find out more about this diversity. In which cities and regions did voters show an affinity for the Hope List, and where did they prefer the Principlists? In which areas did neither of the main political factions win the trust of voters? These are just two of many such questions.

The electoral district is the unit for this map. In Iran, electoral districts are geographic units that consist of a combination of shahrestans (counties) and bakhshes (smaller subdivisions of shahrestans), and which may have one or more Majles seats allocated to them. For more information on the current status and history of electoral districting in Iran, please refer to the Nabz-Nameh edition dedicated to this topic: “Majles Seats and the Challenge of Fair Distribution”.

The Political Spectrum

To become a candidate for elections in Iran, an individual must have his or her loyalty to the constitution and to the velayat-e faqih [guardianship of the jurisprudence -- the basis of Islamic governance in Iran] validated by the Guardian Council. Political parties and groups must likewise have these criteria substantiated in order for permission to operate. As a result, it is only the political actors who are within the system who have the possibility of being elected. Even from within this group only a small number are able to pass through the Guardian Council’s sieve, such that the balance of power within the Majles and the Assembly of Experts is maintained to the tastes of the powers that be. Nevertheless, the nature and extent of citizen participation in elections and the grouping of parliamentary candidates do play a major role in determining the composition of the Majles. This issue, for the most part, goes beyond the presence of religious minorities in elections. While Iran is home to a variety of ethnicities and religions, only a few religious minorities are officially recognized; given their separately allocated seats, they do not represent a significant factor in the composition of the Majles.

The elections for the Tenth Majles took place on Friday, February 26, 2016. According to statistics from the Ministry of Interior, 62 percent of eligible voters cast a ballot. This round of voting determined the winners for 226 seats, while the outcome of the other 64 seats will be decided in the second round.

The Composition of the Coming Majles

For these elections, the various political factions within the system were able to organize themselves under the umbrella of two political lists: the “Principlists” and the “Hope List”. Other political actors took part in the elections independently, outside these lists. These classifications, though, are not precise and leave room for doubt in certain cases.

Up to this point, the Hope List has claimed 93 seats, the Principlists 65, and independents 58, meaning that at the moment, no single side holds a majority in the Majles. Representative members of the Hope List, however, are optimistic that victory by 53 of their 58 candidates in the second round will secure a majority (i.e., 146 seats) in the Majles. Barring this outcome, the independent parliamentarians will play a decisive role in the coming Majles.

Since Iran lacks real political parties, elections are contested by transitory coalitions and political lists comprising a variety of groups. Given these circumstances, an individual’s membership in an electoral list is provisional and based more on political expediency and personal benefit, rather than on a party platform or goals. This leads to a decrease in political transparency and causes Majles representatives to feel less accountable vis-a-vis their electoral aspirations and campaign promises.

The Hope List

As with previous elections, the Guardian Council once again broadly disqualified pro-reform candidates. In response, a wide spectrum of reformist groups and/or supporters of the administration coalesced under the banner of the Hope List. The goal of this was to put forward one candidate for each of Tehran’s 30 Majles seats and 16 Assembly of Experts seats.
Pro-reform groups under the leadership of Mohammad Khatami and moderates close to Hassan Rouhani comprise the main membership of the Hope List. Before the elections, Khatami issued a statement in which he expressed support for this list. Nevertheless, the presence within the Hope List of figures such as former Intelligence Minister Ghorbanali Dorri-Najafabadi (running for the Assembly of Experts) sparked controversy. The “chain murders” [in which Iranian operatives assassinated dozens of dissidents] were carried out by the apparatus under the stewardship of Dorri-Najafabadi, who was minister of intelligence at the time. The inclusion of his name and of those of several others in the Hope List offended and drew criticism from victims’ families and civic activists.

The Reformists’ Supreme Council for Policymaking was the main driving force behind the creation of the Hope List. This council consists of a collection of pro-reform groups, including: the Association of Combatant Clerics, the National Trust Party, the Executives of Construction Party, representatives of Hashemi Rafsanjani, supporters of the administration, and the Moderation and Development Party. Mohammad Reza Aref is the head of this council, which counts a total of 23 political parties or groups among its members.

The Principlists’ List

The Principlists’ list also consisted of a diverse set of groups and parties, including: the Society for the Adherents of the Path of the Islamic Revolution [Rahpooyan], the Endurance Front, the Development and Moderation Party of Islamic Iran, the Islamic Coalition Party, the Combatant Clergy Association [not to be confused with the similarly-named reformist group above], the Principlist faction of Majles, and the Society of Seminary Teachers of Qom.

Independents

Independent parliamentarians typically do not gravitate toward the Principlists or the supporters of the administration (the Hope List). These individuals are more inclined to pursue local or ethnic issues pertaining to their electoral district. At the same time, in order to win more votes, some Principlist candidates separated themselves from the Principlists’ list and ran as independents in these elections. Given that these individuals still support Principlist policies, it makes the composition of the Majles all the more unclear. Some pro-reform candidates adopted the same tactic as well, with the goal of avoiding disqualification by the Guardian Council.

In the first round, independent candidates won 58 seats, which is 17 more than they have in the Ninth Majles. Before the elections, another list was published under the name of “Nationwide Coalition of Independent Candidates” [Farsi], which claims that 37 of its candidates won Majles seats. The political agenda of this group is unclear.

The Geographic Bases of Victorious Political Factions in the First Round of Elections for the Tenth Majles

Support for factions in the Majles varies from one region of Iran to another. While the Hope List was able to claim all Majles seats from Tehran in the first round of elections, the Principlists were successful in cities such as Mashhad and Karaj. A geographic analysis of the social bases of political factions is marked by many ifs and buts. An opaque political system, lack of access by all groups to free media, and the unfair manner in which elections are conducted in Iran mean that many factors influence the success or failure of political factions, though addressing these is beyond the scope of this text. Yet an examination of the map of electoral districts yields meaningful patterns and indicators that help to form a better understanding of the span of each faction’s social base. Paying attention to this aspect of the election results may help political groups active in Iran think about which factors beyond the normal political restrictions could determine the outcome of Majles seats in different parts of the country, and what measures they can consider to overcome their weaknesses in future contests.

Map: Percentage of Success for the Hope List by Electoral District

The map below shows Iran’s electoral districts, with the ones in red indicating where second round elections will be contested. The green areas show the percentage of success for the Hope List in those electoral districts. The darkest green marks districts where Hope List candidates won all available seats; the darker the green, the more successful the Hope List was in that district.

Map of Electoral Districts: Percentage of Victory for Hope List Candidates in the 2016 Majles Elections


Percentage of Victory for Hope List Candidates in the 2016 Majles Elections

The shades of green show the percentage of victory for Hope List candidates in each district.

Click on the map to bring up an interactive version.

As can be seen in the map, the Hope List was much more successful in big cities and provincial capitals. Perhaps one reason for this was the broad disqualification of pro-reform candidates in many regions and the Hope List’s focus on victory in Tehran and big cities. On the other hand though, the demographic makeup of certain cities may account for this discrepancy.

Map: Percentage of Success for Principlists by Electoral District

The map below shows the level to which candidates from the Principlists’ list were successful in each electoral district. As with the Hope List map, here the red areas also indicate districts where second round elections will be contested. The darkest purple shows the districts where Principlist candidates won all available seats; the shades of purple reflect the level of success Principlists had in winning seats in each district.

Map of Electoral Districts: Percentage of Victory for Principlist Candidates in the 2016 Majles Elections


Percentage of Victory for Principlist Candidates in the 2016 Majles Elections

The shades of purple show the percentage of victory for Principlist candidates in each district.

Click on the map to bring up an interactive version.

Principlists were successful in certain parts of Iran, such as Mashhad, Qom, and Karaj, in addition to places in the central, southern, and eastern regions of the country.

Map: Percentage of Success for Independent Candidates by Electoral District

The map below shows the level to which independent candidates were successful in each electoral district. The red areas in this map also indicate districts where second round elections will be contested. The success of independent candidates is shown in blue, with the darkest blue showing the districts where independent candidates won one hundred percent of available seats. Since some districts have just one Majles seat though, victory for one candidate equates to securing all the seats from there.

Map of Electoral Districts: Percentage of Victory for Independent Candidates in the 2016 Majles Elections


Percentage of Victory for Independent Candidates in the 2016 Majles Elections

The shades of blue show the percentage of victory for independent candidates in each district.

Click on the map to bring up an interactive version.

It is generally the case that ethnic and religious minorities in Iran tend to vote more for independent candidates. Looking at the map it can be seen that, more or less, the Kurdish areas, the Sunnis of Baluchestan, and the Arabs of Khuzestan elected independents.

Presence of Women

A variety of political groups campaigned in these elections for increasing the presence of women in the Majles. Even Shahindokht Molaverdi, vice president for women’s and family affairs, made a strong effort to secure a parliamentary quota for women representatives. Iran’s neighboring countries, such as Afghanistan and Iraq, have such quotas in place. In the end, the Expediency Discernment Council [Farsi] did not approve the bill, arguing that it contradicted the principles of democracy by imposing candidates on voters.

Several months before the elections, a number of women’s rights activists launched an initiative called “Changing the Male Face of Parliament”. The goal of this campaign was to have more women elected to the Majles.

Following all these efforts, 14 women candidates won seats in the first round of elections. After the announcement of election results, however, the Guardian Council revoked the qualification of Minoo Khaleghi, a reformist elected from Isfahan.
Women activists are hopeful that the female candidates who will contest second round elections will win their seats. Were they to do so, the Tenth Majles would have 22 women members. Even as it stands though, the percentage of women in the Tenth Majles is already the highest in Iran since the Islamic Revolution.

Religious Minorities

According to the Iranian Constitution, officially recognized minorities are allocated their own representatives in the Majles. This means that of 290 Majles seats, 5 go to the Christians (the Armenians and the Assyrians and Chaldeans), the Jews, and the Zoroastrians. These minority representatives generally try to stay out of political/factional games. Other religious minorities, including Sunnis, Dervishes, and Baha’is, are not identified separately, or not even officially recognized. These minorities do not have their own representative in the Majles. Sunnis make up the population of large segments of Iran, but these areas tend to be underrepresented as far as number of allocated Majles seats. In some cases, districts have been drawn up in such a way so as for Shia candidates to emerge as victors.

The Effect of Unfairly Distributed Majles Seats on Voting Results

Before the February 2016 elections, Nabz-Iran published a Nabz-Nameh called “Majles Seats and the Challenge of Fair Distribution”, which explores the issue of disproportionality between the populations of districts and the number of Majles seats allocated to them, and the effect of that on the voting power of Iranian voters in different parts of the country.

The conclusion of the Majles elections offers the opportunity to study the effect of this disproportionality on voting for the main factions within the system. Keep in mind though that such an analysis is based on hypotheticals and probabilities to show what kinds of consequences and gains a fairer distribution of Majles seats might present for political actors in Iran. Predicting the political behavior of people in any society, much less in Iran, is otherwise difficult if not impossible, and this analysis does not attempt to do so.

In its section on voting power, the Venice Commission's Code of Good Practice in Electoral Matters stipulates that the ratio between the population of any district and the number of parliamentary seats allocated to it should not deviate from the national average by “more than 10%, and should certainly not exceed 15%”. The map below uses this basis to show, in red, those of Iran’s electoral districts whose population-to-seats ratios deviate from the national average by over 15 percent. These districts have a very high population relative to the number of seats allocated to them. In other words, the number of seats in these districts should be increased in order to improve equality in voting power, since a higher number of seats and votes would give citizens more of a say in the Majles.

Map of Electoral Districts with Unacceptably Few Majles Seats - 2016


Electoral Districts with Unacceptably Few Majles Seats

The red areas indicate districts where the ratio between population and Majles seats exceeds the national average by over 15 percent.

Click on the map to bring up an interactive version.

It is assumed that if voters from a district with a shortage of Majles seats elect a candidate from one political faction, then an increase in seats for that district would likewise increase the odds for another candidate from that faction to be elected. On this basis, if a district with five seats sees one Principlist and four Hope List candidates elected, an increase in the number of available seats would boost both factions’ chances to win seats. In other words, both factions are disadvantaged by the shortage of seats in that district.

The map below shows the electoral districts where the unfair distribution of seats has disadvantaged Hope List candidates.

Map of Electoral Districts: Where the Unfair Distribution of Majles Seats Disadvantaged the Hope List


Where the Unfair Distribution of Majles Seats Disadvantaged the Hope List

The areas in red represent electoral districts where Hope List candidates may have been more successful if Majles seats were distributed fairly.

Click on the map to bring up an interactive version.

By this logic, the Hope List could have been more optimistic in Tehran, Rasht, Tabriz, and several districts in Sistan and Baluchestan, if these places had more Majles seats.

Similarly, the map below shows districts in which Principlists were disadvantaged by the unfair distribution of Majles seats.

Map of Electoral Districts: Where the Unfair Distribution of Majles Seats Disadvantaged the Principlists


Where the Unfair Distribution of Majles Seats Disadvantaged the Principlists

The areas in red represent electoral districts where Principlist candidates may have been more successful if Majles seats were distributed fairly.

Click on the map to bring up an interactive version.

Mashhad, Isfahan, and Karaj are among the big cities where increases in the number of seats may have allowed the Principlists to elect more candidates to the Majles.

The second round of elections for the Tenth Majles will be held on Friday, April 29, 2016. The runoff elections will decide the outcome of seats in some of the areas populated by ethnic and religious minorities. In addition, women activists are hopeful that more women will be elected to the Majles in this round, which will determine to what extent the Tenth Majles will reflect the political, cultural, ethnic, and gender diversity of Iran.

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