It's a general rule in Iranian political life that parties stand or fall because of the skill and clout of their leaders, rather than the wisdom or talent displayed by their rank-and-file memberships.
This axiom is true of political parties right across the board, from the right-wing Islamic parties to the moderates and reformers. However, right now, leadership issues are more of a worry for the latter than for the former. The conservatives are in power, whereas the reformers are in poor shape, lacking a leader or even a group of leading figures.
Iran's Parliament File photo
This weakness made itself painfully obvious in the recent parliamentary election, held in two rounds on March 14 and April 25.
In Tehran, for example, the reformers fielded a 30-strong list of well-known figures such as Majid Ansari, a former member of the Assembly of Experts, and Eshaq Jahangiri, who served as industry and mines minister under former president Mohammad Khatami.
But when the results were announced, only one reform candidate, Alireza Mahjoub, was successful in the whole of Tehran.
With leading reformist politicians out of the picture, only 65 reformers were elected across Iran to the 290 seats in parliament. Most of them are low-profile, inexperienced figures who are taking up seats in the legislature for the first time.
According to some analysts, these new members of parliament suffer from a gaping lack of leadership, like troops without a commander. That leaves them in poor shape to enter the fray against supporters of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who hold a clear majority of 140 seats, according to the Fars news agency. In addition, close to half of the 80 members elected on an independent ticket have obvious pro-Ahmadinejad leanings.
Looking at how the numbers stack up, it is clear the reformist faction is unlikely to get any legislation passed. Its function, therefore, will be to scrutinise government policies and performance. By law, legislators can summon cabinet ministers to the house, submit written questions and comment on government policy during debates.
But whether the reformers will do this successfully remains in doubt. Past experience suggests they have found it difficult to perform their supervisory role effectively because they lack a powerful figure to lead them.
In the last parliament, when the reformers had a smaller a minority of 40 seats, the same lack of leadership prevented them from operating effectively. Even their spokesman, Nureddin Pir-Moazzen , said in a January 2008 interview with the Etemad newspaper that he regretted being part of the grouping because it had been so dysfunctional and inert. Some of its members, he said, failed to take part in faction meetings or if they did so, their contributions were ineffectual.
In the new parliament, the reformist group faces the added problem that there is no one formally in charge.
The head of the faction prior to the election, Mohammad Reza Tabesh, announced he was resigning from the position in an interview with the Mehr News Agency on May 13.
When Tabesh was re-elected in his Ardakan-Yazd constituency, the expectation was that he would continue leading the reformist parliamentarians, because of his credentials as a nephew of ex-president Khatami.
Explaining why he was stepping down, Tabesh said the new legislature had experienced and skilled politicians who were better qualified for the job. It has not, however, proved easy to find a replacement.
After Tabesh announced his resignation, two names came up - Masud Pezeshkian, a former health minister who is now member of parliament for Tabriz; and Sheikh Hossein Hashemian, who represents the northern city of Rafsanjan and is seen as a supporter of Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the former Iranian president who currently heads the Expediency Council.
Pezeshkian's record as a Khatami-era minister commended him for the post in many people's eyes, but he immediately ruled himself out, telling the Fars News Agency on May 13 that he did not plan to align himself with any of the parliamentary factions.
That cleared the way for speculation to centre on Hashemian, who has not yet accepted the position. If he does so, he will face many challenges.
Because the number of reformers in parliament has increased, it will be that much harder to herd them together and unite them. Since most are newcomers, they will not even be familiar with the way they should function as a bloc.
The reformers do not come with a common understanding and interpretation of what reform should mean. The views of Alireza Mahjoub, the sole representative from Tehran, for example, are more akin to those of the religious conservatives than to the rest of the reformers. The same goes for Mostafa Kavakebian, the secretary-general of the Mardom-Salari party from Semnan in central Iran. The three books he has written on "velayat-e faqih", the politico-religious philosophy first expounded by the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, show his conservative sympathies.
The degree of pluralism of ideas within the reformist bloc may yet prove their Achilles heel.
Once again, the previous parliament offers worrying lessons - in the four years it was in existence, the reformers proved incapable of reaching enough of a consensus to come up with a joint motion. They made their presence felt simply by delivering sporadic speeches criticising the government.
If the current batch of reformist parliamentarians are to avoid repeating the mistakes of their predecessors, they have no option but to ensure they are more united and their bloc is more of a cohesive structure than before. Even then, they will not be in a position to get reformist legislation through parliament, but they might at least be able to block laws proposed by the conservative majority.
The reform bloc does not seem to have agreed the programme of debates and discussions it would like to see taking place in this parliamentary term, but the mood appears upbeat. Speaking the day after he resigned as faction leader, Tabesh told the ISNA news agency that the minority bloc had real potential and was in a good position to lobby on behalf of the public.
In a May 19 interview for the same news agency, Kavakebian also expressed optimism that the reform bloc would be able to influence the decision-making process, keep a check on government and challenge cabinet decisions. At the same time, he alluded directly to the perceived lack of leadership in the parliamentary group, saying that as a prerequisite for success, the bloc must forge stronger links with major reformist figures and consult on a regular basis with the likes of Khatami and the former speaker of parliament, Mehdi Karroubi.
This, argued Kavakebian, could help the reform faction overcome its leadership vacuum and help it grow into an integrated force within the legislature.
However, the very fact that Kavakebian should have to talk about a leadership vacuum at all is worrying in itself. Should they continue without an experienced politician at the helm, the reformers may find themselves so impaired that they will be unable to build an effective parliamentary opposition within the four years they have left.
About the author: Mahdi Tajik is a journalist and political analyst in Tehran.
This article is an abridged and translated version of the full original text published on the Farsi pages of Mianeh, with editorial adjustments agreed with the writer made to provide clarity for English-language readers.
About Mianeh: Mianeh is a new independent web-based initiative run as a project by the Institute for War & Peace Reporting (iwpr.net) the award-winning non-profit media development organisation that works across the globe to platform local voices and promote international learning and engagement. Mianeh aims to be an open space for ideas, news and debate where writers in Iran can reach out to each other as well as to those outside the country who are interested in learning more about the vibrant and dynamic society that is Iran today.
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