Iran's reformers hope playing by the rules will help them make inroads in Friday's election

With thousands of candidates barred from participating, Friday's parliamentary elections in Iran won't be quite the fully democratic process the country's reformers had been hoping for, but the reformists who did make it on the ballot nevertheless see it as a chance to build their movement and decrease the power of Iran's hardliners.

Reformist candidates put aside differences and form coalition to try to keep hardliners out of parliament

Iranians will cast ballots Friday for representatives in the Majlis, Iran's parliament, and the Experts Assembly, an powerful advisory council. (Ebrahim Noroozi/Associated Press)

Iranians pushing for change in their country attended election rallies and cheered on their candidates this week in what resembled the boisterous and flag-waving campaigns that make up modern-day democracies.

But democracy in Iran, of course, is different. Iran might have elections, but the country is controlled by an all-powerful Supreme Leader, the Ayatollah, who's in charge of a system dominated by ultra-conservative, anti-Western hardliners who vigorously fight any attempt at reform. 

The country's powerful Guardian Council, dominated by hardliners, barred thousands of reformist candidates from running in Friday's elections for the Majlis, Iran's parliament, and the Assembly of Experts, a powerful advisory body.

That includes better-known politicians such as the popular former reformist president Mohammed Khatami, who is barred from running and faces restrictions on his movements. Iran's media is prohibited from publishing his picture or mentioning his name.

Mohammad Reza Aref, head of the reformists' coalition list for the Iranian parliamentary elections, said reform candidates are acting from 'within the system' rather than against it in their efforts to try to keep hardliners from winning seats in Friday's crucial vote. Aref took to Teharn's subway this Tuesday to try and woo voters. (Ebrahim Noroozi/Associated Press)

Still, reformers see this election as a chance to build the movement and at the same time decrease the power of Iran's hardliners, who oppose stronger relations with Western nations, particularly the United States.

"Reformists from all different parties have put aside their differences after many years to agree on a joint list of candidates in an unprecedented form of coalition aimed at blocking hardliners from entering the parliament," reformist political activist Mohammedreza Jalapipour told the Guardian newspaper 

Reformers holding back

It seems the reform movement is taking a more careful, even reserved run at Friday's elections to avoid the crushing response that was seen after elections in 2009. Reformists did well, but the movement was silenced by the Iranian authorities after millions of people took to the streets to protest what they saw as rigged results.

After what became known as the Green Revolution, reformist parties were shut down, and many political activists, journalists and politicians were jailed. 

Iranian women attend a reformist campaign rally in Tehran for the upcoming parliamentary elections. (Raheb Homavandi/)

"There's a critical contrast … between how the reformists acted in 2009 and how the reformist camp is acting today," said Fawaz Gerges, professor of international relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science. 

"The reformist camp has learned important lessons from 2009. They're playing by the rules of the game; they're trying to basically come across as an integral part of the system."

At a recent reformist campaign rally, that shift in tone was clear. "We act within the system," said Mohammed Reza Aref, a former vice-president who has emerged as the new leader of the reform movement. "Nobody loves the [Islamic] revolution more than us. Like a mother, we feel concern for it and want to preserve it.''

Post-nuclear deal changes slow in coming

The election of the "reform-minded" Hassan Rouhani as president in 2013 raised expectations that real change in Iran was just around the corner.

Rouhani's crowning achievement has been the negotiation and implementation of an agreement that limits Iran's nuclear program in exchange for the relief of sanctions that have crippled the country's economy. 

It's only been six weeks since the nuclear deal came into force, but some Iranians say the Rouhani government needs to act more quickly to create jobs and restore financial links with the rest of the world.

Many Iranians have been frustrated with the slow pace of change under President Hassan Rouhani, who negotiated a deal to ease sanctions against Iran in exchange for limits on its nuclear program. (Charles Platiau/Reuters)

"There are lots of educated people who are unemployed," said Seyd, a student in Iran. "In my opinion, people are tired and fed up with politics."

Much of that disappointment stems from the expectation that Rouhani would usher in a host of changes, from advancing the rights of women to improving Iran's human rights record.

His critics say there has been no reform whatsoever under his leadership while his conservative opponents now use his chief success, the nuclear agreement, to argue against future reforms.

I don't think anyone expects them to deliver on any ambitious agenda.- Fawaz Gerges,  London School of Economics and Political Science

"Witness that the government is moving towards a capitalist system, which means that the poor will become poorer, and poverty will become more widespread," said Fatemeh Alia, a conservative member of parliament who is running for re-election. 

More than 6,200 candidates are vying for a spot in Iran's 290-seat Majlis — including about 600 women. The final list of candidates was approved by Iran's interior ministry last week.

Iran's reformers are hoping for a good result when the votes are counted, but the amount of change the movement can bring will be limited, says Gerges.

"Even if the reformists win a comfortable majority, I don't think anyone expects them to deliver on any ambitious agenda," he said. "I think the expectations are very low now."

About the Author

Derek Stoffel

World News Editor

Derek Stoffel is a former Middle East correspondent, who covered the Arab Spring uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya and reported from Syria during the ongoing civil war. Based in Jerusalem for many years, he covered the Israeli and Palestinian conflict. He has also worked throughout Europe and the U.S., and reported on Canada's military mission in Afghanistan.