Who Won Iran's Elections?

Polls were barely closed when Brussels fired the first shot condemning Iran's March 14 parliamentary elections. The U.S. State Department waited only a little longer in seconding EU concerns. The counter-strikes were equally swift on the Iranian side: the country's Supreme Leader issued a statement heralding conservative victories as a blow to Iran's "enemies," while Mohammad-Ali Hosseini, a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry, dismissed criticism as "hasty prejudgment."

Missing from the high-profile war of words were answers to a vital question: who won? Like many things inside Iran, a lack of transparency in the voting process makes that a hard question to answer. On paper the spoils went to the establishment. Conservative candidates close to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad control about two thirds of the 190 races settled so far, putting conservatives on track to control roughly the same majority of the 290 seat-parliament as held in the current government. Conservatives won a majority of seats from districts inside Tehran, normally considered a reformist stronghold, and reformists are protesting the results. All told, reformist candidates are expected to win as many as 50 seats once second-round runoffs are completed in coming weeks. Independent and minority candidates will fill out of the chamber.

But conservatives' strong showing may not mean a continuation of the status quo. Some observers say voters opted for conservative candidates directly opposed to the economic policies of President Ahmadinejad, who could face a tough reelection battle in 2009. A number of the president's rivals won seats, including the country's former chief nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani, and Gholam-Ali Haddad Adel, speaker of the current parliament. Kassam Kasir, a political correspondent for Al-Arab newspaper in Qatar, says the election results illustrate the electorate's deep displeasure with Iran's economic fortunes. (The Economist Intelligence Unit notes Iran's inflation hovers around 19 percent and its annual gross domestic product is forecast to fall.)

The disqualification of as many as 1,700 reformist candidates was also closely scrutinized, and prompted some moderates to threaten a boycott of the vote. Kasra Noori, an Iranian journalist and one of many moderates banned from running, tells Newsweek he was tossed for a lack of commitment to Islam. "As far as I know I'm a good Muslim, and it seems that I'm also enjoying a relatively good reputation in public," he said.

Though reformists from districts outside of Tehran are poised to pick up seats, the overall results disappointed many. Reformist voters who supported previous reform candidates say they have grown tired of supporting a movement that has little political sway within Tehran's clerical hierarchy. "I support [former President Mohammad] Khatami, but what is the point of voting in an election when the result is known in advance?" one voter told The Guardian newspaper during a recent campaign rally south of Tehran. "Even when Khatami was president, he was not allowed to do anything. So why would I vote?" Supporters of conservative candidates, meanwhile, cherished their victory. "If the parliament and president are the same [party], the country will progress," Rana Sheidaiee, whose family backed hard-line candidates, told the Christian Science Monitor. "When they are different, energy is wasted on internal fighting."

Yet many other questions remain unanswered. For one, who voted? Some estimates put turnout at 60 percent, a healthy showing despite widespread disqualifications. But reports of polling varied widely. Farideh Farhi, an expert in Iranian politics at the University of Hawaii, says she is " a bit skeptical" of official turnout figures. Quoting official sources, TIME reports roughly 1 million fewer Iranians cast ballots this year compared to 2004. Arguably a more pressing unknown is how effective conservative lawmakers will be in challenging Ahmadinejad's mandates. Larijani says the new parliament will be "much more effective than the current one, and give priority to national interests." But in an interview with CFR.org, Farhi says change will depend on who leads parliament, "and whether or not the leadership of the parliament is willing to challenge Ahmadinejad on those issues more than they have been willing to do in the past."