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Iran Press Report: Qalibaf's Re-election as Tehran Mayor and Reformist Infighting

This week saw the narrow re-election victory of Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf as mayor of Tehran, with 16 of the 31 city council votes in his favor. Not only did the days surrounding the vote prompt reflection on his first two terms in office, with proponents calling him a skilled city manager who has helped businesses to thrive and opponents suggesting he has been disorganized and wasteful with city resources (or more focused on personal ambitions for the presidency than on the people of his city), but it sparked a factional political battle as well. 

When the election was tipped in the incumbent’s favor thanks to some unexpected votes for him instead of the reformist nominee, Mohsen Hashemi, Elaheh Rastgu – a reformist councilor who voted for Qalibaf – was slammed by reformist writers for crossing party lines during a historic opportunity for the reformists to regain the highest municipal office in the country.  Sadeq Zibakalam wrote in Shargh that is is only logical for reformists to be angry with Rastgu, as her reformist affiliation was what got her elected to the Tehran City Council in the first place, and yet she turned her back on her allies when they needed her vote.  He also expressed anger with those Principlists who criticized the reformists for their anger at her vote, saying “The Principlists’ defense of her, as well as their attacks and accusations of the reformists being undemocratic, are the epitome of political opportunism.”  One of those Principlist critics was Mohammad Safari in Siasat-e Rooz, who said that their clampdown on dissent showed that the supposedly democratic reformists were more reminiscent of the Communist party of the Soviet Union: “This type of behavior tarnishes the reformists, who tie themselves to the Government of Prudence [of Rouhani] and who claim democratic values, and now the best name that can be placed on them is that of pure extremism.”

Some reformists said they themselves were to blame for not choosing a more moderate candidate.  In Mardom-Salari, Hamidreza Shokuhi wrote that the choice of Mohsen Hashemi, despite his experience as the head of the Tehran Metro, was a sensitive one given his history of running afoul of conservatives and given the increasingly controversial actions of his father, the former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who has been a target of hardliners in recent years – and recent days, after his remarks against the actions of Bashar al-Assad in Syria. He writes that it was the first big mistake by reformists after the victory of Rouhani, and that reformists must avoid putting off the electorate by making such bold choices if they want to remain relevant. “From the moment that I heard the name of Mohsen Hashemi announced as the reformist candidate for mayor of Tehran, I was able to predict that Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf would be re-elected for another four-year term.”

As for the qualities of Qalibaf himself, there was understandably considerable debate, which was reflected in the narrow victory he earned.  Khatami era Transport Minister Ahmad Khorram argued in Arman that Qalibaf had been a wasteful manager of Tehran and did not deserve re-election.  “Why should a mayor who has shown that he has not been able to learn to deal with financial matters as he should, that he does not entirely understand planning of construction and infrastructure projects, and that he has been unable to correctly notice social and cultural issues or show kindness and influence working in the heart of the leadership of the mayor’s office be considered for re-appointment?” he asked.  Meanwhile, in Tehran-e Emrooz, the MP Abed Fattahi wrote that his experiences showed quite the opposite picture: “In the assorting meetings we in the Majlis have had with him, I have known him to be a successful city manager who has a long-term strategy…Thankfully, for years now we have seen an increase in the efficiency of the delivery of services from the city government throughout metropolitan Tehran, the effect of which has been to ignite the motor of stimulus at the heart of the nation.”

And of course, the further political ramifications of Qalibaf’s victory, fresh off his defeat in the presidential election, were inescapable.  In Shargh, Javid Qorbanoghli wrote that the election could provide a platform for the Principlists to try to retake the presidency in 2017, with Qalibaf trying to avenge his defeat of this past June. 

APPENDIX: Translated Summaries of Selected Opinion Pieces (Newest to Oldest)

“The Principlists and Elaheh Rastgu.” Sadeq Zibakalam, Shargh, 21 Shahrivar 1392 / 12 September 2013.

 Zibakalam strikes back at criticisms of those Principlist commentators who have accused the reformists of antidemocratic, oppressive behavior by slamming Rastgu for her vote across party lines, saying that she was elected to the city council to represent reformist beliefs, and that by casting a crucial vote for Qalibaf, she has betrayed the goals of those who put her in her position of power.  He writes of the criticism leveled by Principlists: “In the eyes of the Principlists, it was the right of Ms. Rastgu as a member of the city council to make her decision and choose whom to vote for.  The reformists’ hopes and expectations that all the members of the faction should respect the group decision [to vote for Hashemi], according to the Principlists, is a clear sign of domination, oppression, and dictatorial behavior.”  However, he argues, Rastgu’s action was the clear violation of democratic norms, as she went against the movement that entrusted her with her position.  Thus, “The Principlists’ defense of her, as well as their attacks and accusations of the reformists being undemocratic, are the epitome of political opportunism.”

“They’ve Confused Themselves with the Communists.” Mohammad Safari, Siasat-e Rooz, 20 Shahrivar 1392 / 11 September 2013.

In the conservative political daily Siasat-e Rooz, Safari writes that the anger directed by reformists at their colleague in the Tehran City Council, Elahe Rastgu, is more reminiscent of anti-democratic parties that tolerate no dissent, such as the Soviet Union’s Communist party.  “This type of behavior tarnishes the reformists, who tie themselves to the Government of Prudence [of Rouhani] and who claim democratic values, and now the best name that can be placed on them is that of pure extremism.”  He suggests rage and frustration have led the reformists to betray democratic values: “They tried extensively to win a majority of the council [in the 2013 elections] but it didn’t turn out this way and they weren’t able to dismiss the Principlist mayor of Tehran.  This very same political frustration coincides with their extremist actions and now they are intruding on one of their own members for voting for Qalibaf on election day.”  He argues that the reformists have exhibited this brand of politics before, while other factions solve their disagreements in more respectful manners: “These disagreements are seen within all political movements.  Even the Principlists have this type of differences.  But the way they deal with them is very different.  It can be said that such an example has not been seen among the Principlists, or at least not that this author is aware of.  But such political disagreements among the reformists are not limited to this one issue, nor will they be in the future.”

“All Eyes on the Council.” Abed Fattahi, Tehran-e Emrooz,17 Shahrivar 1392 / 8 September 2013.

Fattahi, a member of the Majlis, writes on election day that efficiency, not politics, should be the number one concern of members of the Tehran City Council as they decide whom to elect as mayor, and that this points to the need for Qalibaf to be returned for another term.  He says that the avoidance of a factional election is crucial for the political future of the capital and that it could contribute to a “more hopeful and happier” populace and political scene.  In praise of Qalibaf, he says that in his experiences as a fellow elected official with the mayor, the incumbent proved himself to be a skilled, hard-working manager who deserves to retain his job.  “In the assorting meetings we in the Majlis have had with him, I have known him to be a successful city manager who has a long-term strategy…Thankfully, for years now we have seen an increase in the efficiency of the delivery of services from the city government throughout metropolitan Tehran, the effect of which has been to ignite the motor of stimulus at the heart of the nation.”

“What Qalibaf Did But Wasn’t Seen.” Ahmad Khorram, Arman, 16 Shahrivar 1392 / 7 September 2013.  In the reformist Arman, Khatami era Transport Minister Ahmad Khorram argues that Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf is unworthy of a second term.  Specifically, he blasts the incumbent for dismissing and hiring city officials for political reasons, for overseeing a vast expansion in city spending in spite of promises to the contrary, and spending so much on his own presidential campaign that it sparks suspicion that he may have siphoned money from city accounts.  “Why should a mayor who has shown that he has not been able to learn to deal with financial matters as he should, that he does not entirely understand planning of construction and infrastructure projects, and that he has been unable to correctly notice social and cultural issues or show kindness and influence working in the heart of the leadership of the mayor’s office be considered for re-appointment?” Khorram asks.