Monthly Archives: June 2013

Albania 2013

Legislative elections were held in Albania on June 23, 2013. Albania’s unicameral Parliament (Kuvendi i Shqipërisë) has 140 members elected to a four-year term. Members are elected by proportional representation in twelve multi-member constituencies which correspond to the country’s twelve administrative counties. The number of seats in each constituency is based on the population, with Tirana County having 32 deputies while Kukës County returns only four MPs. A political party must obtain 3% of the votes to win seats, while coalitions of parties must win 5%. Seats are attributed to coalitions by the d’Hondt method, while seats to the component parties are then attributed by the Sainte-Laguë method.


Between 1945 and 1991, Albania was a single-party communist state. Until 1985, Albania had been under the repressive iron fist of Enver Hoxha, a hardline Stalinist and ‘anti-revisionist’ communist leader who broke with his erstwhile allies – Yugoslavia (1948), the Soviet Union (1961) and China (1978) – one after the other, claiming that they had betrayed original (Stalinist) communism and turned into revisionist regime. As a result, Albania became an extremely isolated autarkic regime which barred its people from travelling outside the regime, built up half a million pillboxes to defend from ‘invasion’, brutally cracked down on dissidents and oppressed religious groups under the auspices of ‘state atheism’. Hoxha died in 1985 and was replaced by Ramiz Alia, who despite having been a close Hoxhaist until 1985, began a policy of slow and gradual reforms – looseing travel bans, opening up ties with neighboring states and allowing for some public dissent. However, he was soon caught up in the winds of change which swept Eastern Bloc nations in the early 1990s and, after a student protest in December 1990, was compelled to hold multiparty elections to a constituent assembly in March-April 1991. The ruling party, the Party of Labour of Albania (PPSH), which had already begun morphing into a more socialist/social democratic pro-European party, enjoyed several built-in advantages which allowed it to sweep to victory, defeating Sali Berisha’s urban-based right-wing Democratic Party (PD), which was strongly supported by the United States. Alia became President of Albania, and the PPSH became the Socialist Party (PS) in June 1991.

The Albanian economy, wrecked by years of Hoxhaist rule, collapsed in 1991-1993, taking with it Alia’s government in the 1992 elections. Sali Berisha’s PD won 62% of the vote and Berisha, who had supported the student protests in 1990, became President. Berisha’s government engaged in major economic, institutional and political reforms which thoroughly liberalized the economy through massive privatizations of all land and SMEs. Albania opened towards the West, joining the Council of Europe in 1995 and cooperating closely with the EU and the US. Between 1993 and 1996, Albania enjoyed a period of rapid economic growth (9%). As in many other Eastern Bloc countries, this first period of economic boom was built on sand and collapsed on itself shortly thereafter. In Albania, the government had allowed and even encouraged the proliferation of pyramid schemes in which many Albanians invested their savings. The government profited and had personal interests in these scams, as they were fronts for money laundering and arms trafficking. In May 1996, the PD was reelected with an even wider majority (122/140) in an election marred by fraud and intimidation.

In January 1997, the pyramid schemes collapsed, causing Albanians to lose $1.2 billion. At staggering speed, the country rose up in open rebellion against the government, and state authorities disintegrated as citizens raided arm depots. Southern Albania, which had been the traditional base of the communist regime and remained the base of the post-communist left, became a no-man’s land controlled by rebels, armed gangs and criminal mafias. The government was forced to resign and replaced by a Socialist government which called for new elections in June 1997. The government called for a foreign intervention to restore order. The UNSC authorized a multilateral intervention, led by Italy, which succeeded in restoring order.

The PS won the June 1997 elections, winning 101 out of 155 seats. At the same time as the presidential election, a referendum on restoring the monarchy was held. Albania had been a ramshackle monarchy between 1928 and 1939, under the rule of the idiosyncratic King Zog I. His son, Crown Prince Leka, was claimant to the throne in 1997. On official results, the monarchic option lost with two-thirds against, but Sali Berisha admitted in 2011 that the results had been manipulated and the monarchy had actually won.

Fatos Nano, the PS leader, became Prime Minister. Nano had led the modernization of the PS, transforming the former hardline communist party into a European social democratic party, supportive of European integration. Nano had been imprisoned on fairly flimsy grounds during Sali Berisha’s presidency. The government had claimed he was involved in corruption and misusing humanitarian aid, but the PS – backed by numerous NGOs (Amnesty, HRW, IPU etc) claimed he was a political prisoner, locked up because of his opposition to Berisha and his autocratic tendencies.

Nano was forced to resign after a coup attempt by hardline PD members in 1998. He was replaced by Pandeli Majko, but Nano returned as Prime Minister in 2002, shortly after the PS was reelected with a reduced majority in 2001. Under Socialist government, Albania’s economy stabilized and grew after the 1997 crisis, although poverty, poor public services and widespread corruption remained major issues which continued to encourage immigration to Italy and neighbouring countries.

Sali Berisha returned to power in the 2005 elections. Under Berisha’s government, Albania continued moving closer to the United States and the European Union; in 2007, he hosted US President George W. Bush, the first visit by an American President to Albania. However, corruption, government inefficiency/incompetence and the government’s autocratic tendencies remained major issues.

Berisha’s PD-led coalition was controversially reelected in 2009, winning 70 seats against 66 seats for Tirana mayor Edi Rama’s PS-led coalition. The Socialist Alliance for Integration, a PS dissident coalition led by former PS Prime Minister Illir Meta (1999-2002) won four seats and gave their support to Berisha, in exchange for Meta becoming deputy PM and foreign minister. The PS claimed that the election was rigged and they refused to take their seats in Parliament. They might have had a good point, considering that most past elections had been marred by allegations of intimidation, vote-buying and limited fraud. However, foreign observers generally OKed the 2009 election.

Albania joined NATO in 2009 and signed a Stabilization and Association Agreement with the EU in April 2009. However, in a major setback to its hopes of winning EU candidate status, it failed to gain candidate status in December 2010 because of the post-2009 political crisis and lack of progress on key issues.

Contending forces

As in many other Eastern European countries (especially Romania or Bulgaria), the two main parties hate one another, a mutual antagonism which masks the fact that, in the end, they don’t differ all that much on ideology (assuming they actually have one) and they only feud because both want absolute power for themselves. As in other post-communist states, there is rising popular discontent with the political system – widely viewed as corrupt, incompetent, ineffective and blind to the problems facing the country. Many voters feel that, regardless of who is in government, little has changed and little will change. Albania has progressed since the fall of communism, but it still faces a huge number of issues. If it were to join the EU, it would be the poorest country in the alliance and also the most corrupt.

Albanian politics since 2001 or so have transitioned to something of a two-party/coalition system, with two dominant coalitions which are in turn individually dominated by a single party. These coalitions go through various tinpot names which are amusingly similar at times – in 2009, the PD-led coalition was the ‘Alliance for Change’ and the PS-led coalition was the ‘Union for Change’!

This year, the PD-led alliance is the Alliance for Employment, Prosperity and Integration (Aleanca për Punësim, Mirëqenie dhe Integrim). The largest party in the coalition is Prime Minister Sali Berisha’s Democratic Party (Partia Demokratike e Shqipërisë), a centre-right party which strongly supports European integration. Traditionally, the second strongest party is the Republican Party (Partia Republikane e Shqipërisë), a more right-wing party led by former defense minister Fatmir Mediu. Founded in 1991 as an imitation of the American GOP, it used to be more Eurosceptic and nationalistic, but it has since adopted pro-European and pro-NATO positions which means that its ideological differences with the PD are close to nonexistent. The only other party of relevance in the ruling coalition is the Party for Justice, Integration and Unity (Partia Drejtësi, Integrim dhe Unitet, PDIU).

The PDIU is a nationalist party, particularly focusing its attention on Albanians in neighbouring countries – Kosovo, Macedonia, the Presevo valley in Serbia and Montenegro. The PDIU also advocates for Cham Albanians, Albanians who were expelled from the Greek region of Epirus after World War II, having been accussed by Greece of collaboration with the Nazis. The Italians had cultivated irredentist feelings with Cham Albanians, with the aim of using them as tools to cause unrest in Epirus while Italy was preparing for its invasion of Greece, in which it was aided by pro-fascist Albanian troops. Cham Albanians demand the restoration of Greek citizenship, the right to return and restoration/compensation for lost property. Tirana has been trying to not bring up the issue, while Athens has been unwavering in its refusals to budge on its position (that Chams collaborated and are thus war criminals).

The governing coalition ran on its record, emphasizing investments made in education, healthcare, social policies and infrastructure projects. It is also proud of its 10% flat tax (on VAT, income taxes and business/corporate taxes), which it says has allowed Albania to escape the global recession and maintain a 1-3% growth rate during the economic crisis (1.3% in 2012, 1.8% in 2013 – the lowest since 1997). It promised more reforms, creating 250,000 jobs and attracting foreign investment.

The PD-led coalition includes 25 parties in total, all but three of which are irrelevant.

The PS-led alliance is the Alliance for a European Albania (Aleanca për Shqipërinë Europiane), which includes no less than 37 parties. By far, the most relevant party is the Socialist Party (Partia Socialiste e Shqipërisë), a centre-left party led by Edi Rama. The PS never recognized the PD’s victory in the 2009 election, and boycotted the Parliament for a year, until the European Parliament mediated and allowed the PS to finally take their seat. In January 2011, the PS organized major protests against Sali Berisha’s government. The police responded with force, killing four protesters and wounding many others. In May 2011, the PS walked out of Parliament again after contesting the results of the 2011 local elections, particularly a high-profile mayoral contest in Tirana which was narrowly won by the PD candidate, defeating PS leader and incumbent mayor Edi Rama. In April 2013, two members of the Republican Guard suspected in the death of protesters in 2011 were acquitted by a Tirana court. Another man, a former adviser to the Prime Minister, was also acquitted on charges of attempting to erase security camera footage during the protests.

This year, the PS is allied with the Socialist Movement for Integration (Lëvizja Socialiste për Integrim, LSI), a social democratic party founded in 2004 by former PS Prime Minister Ilir Meta, a major rival of former PS leader Fatos Nano. The LSI originally cooperated with the PS, notably in the 2007 local elections where it helped Edi Rama win a third term as mayor of Tirana. However, the agreement broke down and after 2008 the LSI allied with the PD and Berisha. After the 2009 elections, the LSI’s four members gave the PD its absolute majority, in return for Meta being deputy PM, foreign minister, two other ministries for the LSI and the LSI getting 20% of public sector jobs. It withdrew from the government and allied with the PS in April 2013. The LSI, like the PS, is strongly pro-European, perhaps even more so than the PS.

The only other relevant actor in the PS’s coalition is the Unity for Human Rights Party (Partia Bashkimi për të Drejtat e Njeriut/Κόμμα Ένωσης Ανθρωπίνων Δικαιωμάτων, PBDNJ), a party which represents Albania’s small (1-2%) Greek minority. After Albanian independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1913, a small Greek minority in Northern Epirus (southern Albania, extension of the Greek region of Epirus) came under Albanian sovereignty, much to the distaste of the local Greeks who declared their independence and had it granted to them (under nominal Albanian sovereignty) in the 1914 Protocol of Corfu, which was never implemented. After World War I and the defeat of Greek irredentism in Asia Minor, Northern Epirus came under complete Albanian sovereignty. The Albanian governments, both under Zog and communism, effectively paid lip service to minority rights. Greeks were granted limited rights (such as education in Greek and Albanian), but only in a strictly delimited area (which excluded many other Greeks), and both regimes worked to undermine minority rights. Under communism, Hoxha repressed any expression of Greek nationalism or minority rights, prohibited religion and used the same brutal tactics (resettlement, isolation, forced labour) on Greeks. Since the fall of communism, the Greek minority has remained a source of ethnic tensions in southern Albania and a point of contention with Athens. Many Greeks immigrated to Greece, a minority resorted to violence (met with reprisals from Tirana). Since 1996, however, relations have improved between the two states, although Greek Albanians allege they face discrimination and ethnic tensions still boil over. The PBDNJ has limited support and it has been losing strength in recent years.

The left campaigned on abolishing the flat tax and replacing it with a progressive income tax and creating a universal healthcare system.

Earlier this year, a lot was made of the new Red and Black Alliance (Aleanca Kuq e Zi, AK), a nationalist party founded in 2012 by Kreshnik Spahiu. The AK had a nationalist platform, advocating for the unification of all ethnic Albanians in the Balkans – the pan-Albanian irredentist dream of uniting Albanians in Kosovo, Macedonia and other regions into a singe Albanian nation-state. It also had an anti-elite and anti-corruption rhetoric, calling for term limits and even banning any person from leading a political party for a long time (Sali Berisha has been leading the PD, effectively, since 1991). Many Albanians strongly support Kosovo, and would probably support a union of Kosovo and Albania.

The AK accused the PD’s ethnic Greek labour minister, Spiro Ksera, of having links with Greece’s neo-Nazi Golden Dawn (XA) and having employed a Greek Albanian who had supported a Greek irredentist movement in Northern Epirus.

AK polled up to 15% in January, but collapsed in April. It is likely linked to rising internal tensions within the new party, highlighted by the publicized resignations of over 20 members who criticized Kreshnik Spahiu’s autocratic leadership. Prime Minister Sali Berisha also stoked nationalist fires during the campaign. He pledged to give Albanian passports to Albanians living in other states. In November 2012, he claimed that the Epirus region of Greece was Albanian, leading Greece’s foreign minister to cancel a visit for the centenary of Albanian independence. At other times, Berisha indicated his support for Greater Albania, saying that he wanted all Albanians to live in a single nation-state.

All actors support European integration. The PD and PS exchanged blame for the failure of EU candidate status. The PD claims that the PS, by boycotting Parliament, blocked the passage of required reforms. The PS answers that it’s the PD’s fault, citing widespread corruption, organized crime and bad governance.


Turnout was 53.24%, up from, 50.77% in 2009. Similar to countries such as Romania, declining turnout since the fall of communism reflects dissatisfaction with the political system, widely seen as corrupt and useless.

International observers and the EU both clearly indicated prior to the vote that they would be closely watching the process and outcome, saying it would be a test of Albania’s political leaders’ commitment to European integration and the strength of the democratic institutions.

Results for 99.68% of precincts:

Alliance for a European Albania 57.54% (+7.35%) winning 84 seats (+14)
PS 41.12% (+0.27%) winning 66 seats (+1)
LSI 10.44% (+5.59%) winning 16 seats (+12)
PBDNJ 0.83% (-0.36%) winning 1 seat (nc)
PKDSH 0.47% (+0.47%) winning 1 seat (+1)
Other PS allies 4.68% winning 0 seats (nc)
Alliance for Employment, Prosperity and Integration 39.23% (-7.69%) winning 56 seats (-14)
PD 30.41% (-9.77%) winning 49 seats (-19)
PR 3.04% (+0.93%) winning 3 seats (+2)
PDIU 2.59% (+2%) winning 4 seats (+3)
Other PD allies 3.19% winning 0 seats (nc)
FRD 1.69% winning 0 seats
AK 0.59% winning 0 seats
Others 0.63% winning 0 seats

Albania 2013

The left-wing opposition won a clear victory, taking a three-fifths majority in the Parliament. The incumbent government was likely hurt by the slower economy since 2012, allegations of corruption, the controversy since the 2009 elections and the heightened political polarization in the country. There was perhaps an additional desire for change, after 8 years of PD government.

Edi Rama’s PS itself did not do all that well, basically repeating their performance from 2009. It was, instead, Ilir Meta’s LSI which gave the leftist coalition its landslide victory. The LSI won 10% and 16 seats, a substantial improvement on its performance in the 2009 election. I have no clue what explains this. A desire for change, channeled by a ‘safe’ alternative (LSI) rather than a boring and fairly tainted mainstream PS?

The incumbent government lost the election, in turn, by a wide margin. The PD suffered the brunt of loses, losing some support to its right – PR and PDIU – but also probably losing a lot to the left/LSI.

More spectacular is the extent of polarization and the utter failure of alternatives which lay outside the two main alliances. The nationalist AK, which everybody made a big deal about earlier in the year (the ‘kingmakers’), ended up being totally irrelevant. The left seized the change message for itself, and the governing right was probably more successful in appealing to nationalist opinion. Another new force, the New Democratic Party (Fryma e Re Demokratike, FRD), a centre-right PD dissident party led by former President Bamir Topi (2007-2012), who criticized Berisha for his failure to confront corruption. In the end, the FRD failed to shake up the political system as it wished to do.

Geographically, there has tended to be a strong north-south divide in Albanian politics. As far as I know, this divide closely reflects a dialectal split. Northern Albania, as well as Kosovo and northwestern Macedonia, speak Gheg dialects of Albanian. Southern Albania, as well as southwestern Macedonia and Epirus, speak Tosk dialects of Albanian. The Shkumbin river, which runs south of Tirana, forms a geographic divide between the Gheg and Tosk regions. Politically, most of the PPSH communist elite (Enver Hoxha first and foremost) hailed from southern Albania and, for example, Hoxha’s linguistic standardization policies settled the dispute in favour of Tosk – the language of the PPSH’s inner circle. As a result, the PS has tended to be dominant in the south, while the north has backed the right. There might be a social element to this divide as well, the south might have been under the sway of feudal beys until the communist era, while the north was less feudal.

In the 2009 election, there was a clear north-south split in the left-right divide. This year, by virtue of the left’s landslide, the divide has been abated somewhat. Still, the right failed to break 40% in any district south of Tirana, while it was in the mid to high 40s in most of the north.

The election went quite well, with the tragic exception of a LSI member who was assassinated near a polling station and three other persons, including a PD candidate, who were wounded. As far as I know, Berisha has conceded defeat and the result are not being contested. The fairly smooth process should definitely be helpful to Albania in its goal of achieving EU candidate status.

It will also have a more stable and less controversial government, still committed to European integration, in power. Albania still has a lot of work to do and many fundamental reforms on the table before it can be admitted as a EU candidate.

Economic reforms, unemployment (officially 14%, unofficially 40%), organized crime, corruption, a huge parallel economy (60% of GDP) and a growing budget deficit will be the top issues for incoming Prime Minister Edi Rama. The PS hasn’t run the country into the wall in the past (since 1991), but it’s record isn’t stellar either – it showed no great attachment to liberal democratic values (judicial independence etc) and proved itself to be quite corrupt in its own right. It remains to be seen how much it will reform Albania and deal with its most pressing problems.

Lot-et-Garonne 3rd (France) by-election: Losing streak

A legislative by-election was held in the Lot-et-Garonne’s 3rd constituency in France on June 16 and 23, 2013. The constituency’s deputy, Jérôme Cahuzac (Socialist Party, PS), was compelled to resign his seat on April 16, 2013 after having been removed from Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault’s government on March 19, 2013. In France’s semi-presidential system, a sitting deputy relinquishes his legislative seat to his suppléant (running mate) once he enters government. Until 2008, upon leaving the government, the former deputy needed to run and win in a by-election to retrieve his seat in the National Assembly. Since a constitutional reform in 2008, the former deputy automatically regains his seats upon leaving the government. However, given the nature of the accusations against him which had forced him to leave the government, Cahuzac had little choice but to resign his seat as deputy, creating a vacancy.

French legislative elections or by-elections are fought on a two-round system. A candidate must win over 50% of valid votes representing at least 25% of registered voters to win outright by the first round. If a second round is organized, all candidates who have won over 12.5% of registered voters are qualified for the runoff; or, if no candidates meet this requirement, the top two candidates in the first round. In by-elections were turnout is almost always lows, this means that only the top two candidates will qualify.

Jérôme Cahuzac held this constituency between 1997 and 2002 and again between 2007 and 2012. Cahuzac gained a profile as a moderate and ‘expert’ on fiscal and budgetary issues, serving as president of the National Assembly’s finance commission after 2010. After having served in François Hollande’s campaign team in the 2012 presidential election, he was name junior minister for the budget in Jean-Marc Ayrault’s government in May 2012, after Hollande’s victory. With a reputation as an orthodox ‘budget hawk’, he was in charge of dealing with France’s large government deficit and public debt.

In December 2012, the online newspaper Mediapart accused Cahuzac of tax evasion, alleging that he had a hidden offshore account in Switzerland until 2010 (at which point it was closed and the money transferred to another account, in Singapore). Unwilling to reveal their sources, Cahuzac vehemently denied Mediapart‘s allegations and received the backing of the President and Prime Minister. At that point, Mediapart was running on the basis of a voice recording from 2000, a conversation between Cahuzac and his asset manager. This recording’s veracity was confirmed by sources close to Cahuzac and some of his former local political rivals. On March 19, 2013, a Parisian court opened a preliminary inquiry into suspicions of tax evasion. While continuing to claim his innocence, Cahuzac was removed from government that same day. On April 2, Cahuzac was indicted on a charge “laundering of tax fraud proceeds and money laundering of proceeds from a company whose products or services are covered by Social Security” and he was forced to admit, on his blog, that he did indeed hold 600,000 euros (likely more) in an offshore account. Swiss authorities had already discovered a bank account belonging to him.

President Hollande and Prime Minister Ayrault minced no words in disowning him, Hollande saying it was a “moral fault”. On April 9, Cahuzac was excluded from the PS. However, legitimate suspicions abound as to whether or not Hollande, Ayrault and the top echelons of the PS knew that Cahuzac had concealed his offshore account before he admitted to it himself. Mediapart claimed that the interior ministry authenticated the voice recording in a three-page report to the presidency; it also claimed that Cahuzac’s then-senior minister, Pierre Moscovici (minister of the economy and finances) intervened in January 2013 to protect Cahuzac.


The Cahuzac affair, the first major scandal for the new Socialist government, could not have come at a worst time for the government. A bit over a year after taking office, President Hollande’s disapproval rating stands at 70% (!) and his Prime Minister’s disapproval ratings only slightly better at 65-67%. This is the lowest approval rating for any President after a year in office, and approaching all-time lows for presidential unpopularity (mid to low 20s).

A large part of this unpopularity stems from the politcal and economic conjuncture. France is wracked with high unemployment (over 10%), an economy in recession and a very large public debt (90%). At least some of France’s economic woes are beyond the government’s control, although voters will invariably lay the blame on a poor economy on whoever has the bad luck of being in power. It is likely that if President Nicolas Sarkozy had won reelection in May 2012, his approval ratings would be just as low as Hollande’s. However, the economic crisis has only aggravated matters and a good part of this government’s unpopularity is of its own making.

At times, the government has been a bit like a deer in the headlights when it comes to dealing with the economic crisis. It has been seen as powerless, lost and incompetent in its handling of the economy. The right has criticized the ‘amateurism’ and jumbled response of the government and denounced high taxes. Many on the left, however, also dislike the government. Hollande and the PS won the 2012 election on a fairly anti-austerity platform full with flowery rhetoric about ‘growth’ and nice things, but once in power it has largely continued Sarkozy’s austerity policies (disguised as ‘efforts’ because austerity is unpronounceable by governments since the 1980s). Hollande approved the European Fiscal Compact without any substantial changes, despite having pledged to renegotiate it. His government has implemented harsh austerity measures, including tax increases and spending/job cuts in the public sector. The Constitutional Council has also forced him to scrap, entirely, his much-publicized 75% tax on incomes over a million euros. With good reason, many on the left feel that Hollande’s policies are no different than his predecessor’s policies.

Other election promises – constitutional reforms, cracking down on dual office holding (cumul des mandats) and so forth – have been watered down or indefinitely delayed. The government was successful in passing its landmark same-sex marriage and adoption law in May 2013, but it was passed at the price of riling up social conservative and Catholic public opinion in the form of enormous anti-gay marriage rallies.

On the symbolic aspect of things, Hollande had made a big deal of Sarkozy’s centralizing, autocratic and flashy presidential style and he famously presented himself as the ‘normal President’ in contrast to the ‘hyper-President’. Yet, the symbolic changes at that level have been slow to come. The ‘normal president’ mantra was quickly dropped. By choosing his close ally Jean-Marc Ayrault as Prime Minister, Hollande signaled that he was continuing in Sarkozy’s, rather than Mitterrand’s, footsteps by choosing a close ally and partner as Prime Minister. While the left criticized Sarkozy for sidelining the Prime Minister and concentrating powers in the executive branch, Hollande has done largely the same. Ayrault, a year later, appears effaced and a mere ‘sidekick’ in comparison to his President.

Within the government, there has often been cacophony and public disagreements between cabinet ministers, which Ayrault has struggled to deal with. Cabinet solidarity appears to be quite shaky. For example, Arnaud Montebourg – the minister of industry and a leader of the PS’ left-wing faction – told Ayrault that he was managing France like the municipal council in Nantes (Ayrault was mayor of Nantes before becoming Prime Minister) and that he was ‘pissing off’ everybody with the controversial new airport project on the outskirts of Nantes (which Ayrault strongly supports, along with most of the PS, but not Montebourg and the Greens). Ayrault confirmed Montebourg’s insubordination but he was not fired. There have also been internal disagreements between the PS and its most demanding junior partner, the Greens (EELV) – which is seriously considering leaving the governing coalition. The Left Front (FG) led by Jean-Luc Mélenchon and the Communist Party (PCF) have been vocal critics of government policies.

There have been eight legislative by-elections since the last legislative elections (seven of them actually ‘count’ because Wallis-et-Futuna has no impact on national politics and vice-versa – the ‘right-winger’ backed by the UMP who won that by-election now sits with the PS…). The PS held four of these eight seats, and it has lost all of them. It was eliminated by the first round in two seats it already held and in two other seats in which it was the main challenger in 2012.

The first ‘mid-term’ electoral test for the government will be municipal elections in March 2014, followed by European elections in June 2014. The left might manage to hold on fairly well in the municipal elections, but European elections are usually brutal for the governing party and the PS will likely take a massive thumping. Many assume that Hollande will change Prime Ministers after the Euros in June 2014.


Location of the Lot-et-Garonne’s 3rd constituency (outlined in red)

Lot-et-Garonne’s third constituency includes the northeastern region of the Lot-et-Garonne, the region centered around Villeneuve-sur-Lot. The constituency includes the cantons of Beauville, Cancon, Castillonnès, Fumel, Laroque-Timbaut, Monclar, Monflanquin, Penne-d’Agenais, Prayssas, Sainte-Livrade-sur-Lot, Tournon-d’Agenais, Villeneuve-sur-Lot Nord, Villeneuve-sur-Lot Sud and Villeréal. Its boundaries have remained unchanged since 1986.

This is a predominantly small town constituency, with some more rural and sparsely populated regions. Villeneuve-sur-Lot, with a population of 23,530 is the largest city in the constituency. Sainte-Livrade-sur-Lot (pop. 6,410) and Fumel (pop. 5,186) are the two other major towns in the constituency, although a good number of towns have over 2,000 inhabitants. In general, the main centres of population are concentrated along the Lot river, which flows through the constituency and its three largest communes. The ‘inland’ communes tend to be rural, isolated from major urban centres. Historically an agricultural region, the constituency nowadays tends to be lower middle-class, with a large blue-collar (ouvriers and employees) population and a high percentage (36%) of retirees.

Historically, the department (and this constituency) was rural and agricultural – wheat, wines, fruits and vegetables being the dominant crops in the department. As recently as 1968, agriculteurs (farmers who owned and work their land) still made up a plurality of the working population in most of the constituency, excluding the major cities and the Fumélois. The Lot-et-Garonne’s social structure was a mix of smallholdings and métayage (a form of sharecropping), although métayage was more dominant in the Marmandais (the western half of the department). Agriculture declined significantly after the Second World War, continuing a rural exodus which had begun in the mid-nineteenth century and continued into the 1970s, although urban areas grew considerably after the 1920s.

The exception to the agricultural nature of the constituency was found in the three main urban centres. Villeneuve-sur-Lot has always served as an important commercial centre by virtue of its geographic location on the Lot river. Sainte-Livrade-sur-Lot’s economy has been more closely tied to its rural surroundings. Fumel and its immediate surroundings, located at the eastern extremity of the constituency along the Lot river, has had a large iron working/metallurgical industry since the 1850s. Some rural areas, however, have some industrial backbone as well – construction, small businesses and so forth.

After the Algerian War and Algerian independence (1962), a large number (about 20,000) of pieds noirs and harki refugees settled in the Lot and Garonne valleys. In the interwar years, the region had already received Italian and Spanish immigrants.

Politically, this region of the department has been a closely disputed bellwether since the 1980s. The Communist Party (PCF), which was extremely powerful in the Marmandais as early as the mid-1920s until 1981, was never as strong in the Villeneuvois, although it did fairly well in the industrialized Fumélois and in some rural cantons in the north. Instead, the constituency remained dominated by notables and moderate ‘bourgeois parties’ – Georges Leygues, a centre-right republican who served President of the Council between September 1920 and January 1921, held the continuously seat between 1885 and 1933. The Radical Party, the epitome of the parti de notables which dominated small-town republican and anti-clerical areas such as this one for decades, was rather strong in the region as well. In 1958, a former Radical-turned-Gaullist (Jacques Raphaël-Leygues, none other than Georges Leygues’ grandson) won this seat for the Gaullist UNR. He was defeated in 1962 by Édouard Schloesing, a moderate Radical who refused the Programme commun with the PS and PCF in 1972 and was reelected – one last time – in 1973 for the centrist ‘Reformist Movement’ (MR). The first left-winger to represent the constituency was Marcel Garrouste, a Socialist elected in 1978, 1981 and 1988.

Nevertheless, the left – echoing a long Radical tradition which retained leftist overtones for quite some time – dominated presidential politics until 1981. Mitterrand easily won the constituency in 1965, 1974 and 1981 – on the current boundaries, he won 55.8% of the vote in 1981. The substantial shift away from the left came in one shot – in 1988, Mitterrand actually performed below his national average in the seat, winning only 52.8% in the second round. Since then, numbers have been stabilized – the constituency is a pure bellwether. The results in presidential elections since 1995 have been remarkably close to national numbers: 53.2% for Chirac in 1995, 53.7% for Sarkozy in 2007 and 51.8% for Hollande in 2012. Even in the first rounds, with the exception of the far-right which tends to be a few points above average and the Greens and far-left who are a few points below, the numbers for the PCF, PS, UDF and RPR-UMP have been very similar to national numbers.

Results of presidential, regional and European elections in Lot-et-Garonne's 3rd constituency since 1988 (1981 notional results)

Results of presidential, regional and European elections in Lot-et-Garonne’s 3rd constituency since 1988 (1981 notional results)

What explains the sudden shift away from the left, between 1981 and 1988? The left-wing  anti-clerical and republican tradition which had prevailed for over a hundred years declined, with a rural exodus, urbanization and social dislocation bred by such changes. This was likely aggravated by the economic crisis of the 1980s. Immigration became a major issue in this region starting around the same time. The region’s strong fruit and vegetable industry has always required a large seasonal workforce. While these roles were often filled by Italians, Spaniards or Portuguese in the 1960s and 1970s, they were progressively replaced by Moroccan and other North African immigrants. The constituency has a fairly large foreign population (6%), although some of those ‘foreign nationals’ are British or other EU citizens who settled in rural southern France.

Each main party’s strength is almost evenly distributed throughout the constituency. In the 2012 runoff, Hollande did best in the cantons of Fumel (59.6%) and Tournon-d’Agenais (57.7%) – both industrialized (metal) areas in the Fumélois; but in all other cantons, his support ranged from 47% to 54%. Similarly, Marine Le Pen’s support was fairly evenly spread – she did not do significantly worse in major cities (she won 23% in Sainte-Livrade-sur-Lot, although she performed a bit below average in the other towns) and her support ranged from 19% to 23%. The FN traditionally tends to be strong along the Lot and Garonne rivers, a region mixing Pieds-Noirs with seasonal immigration, fruit/vegetable farms and small businesses (a perfect recipe for a strong FN vote); but in 2012, Marine Le Pen improved on past far-right performances in the more rural ‘inland’ cantons.

Villeneuve-sur-Lot, like many similar commercial and rather bourgeois towns in the old Radical southwest, was a Gaullist stronghold until 2001 – in many elections (such as 1981), the right’s strength was concentrated in Villeneuve-sur-Lot while the left prevailed in the surrounding rural areas. It has since shifted to the left. In 1998, Jérôme Cahuzac gained the canton of Villeneuve-sur-Lot-Sud and he gained the town hall from the RPR’s Michel Gonelle in a triangulaire in 2001. He was reelected by the first round in 2008. Hollande narrowly won Villeneuve-sur-Lot in the 2012 runoff.

As a rural area, the Chasse, pêche, nature et traditions (CPNT) did very well in the constituency in the 1990s. It won 10.1% in the 1999 European elections, and CPNT presidential candidate Jean Saint-Josse did rather well in isolated rural cantons in 2002 – up to 19% support.

The PS narrowly held the seat in the 1988 legislative elections, with former deputy Marcel Garrouste. However, Garrouste retired prior to the catastrophic 1993 elections. Hurt by the atypical candidacy of Anne Carpentier, owner of a satirical local paper, the PS found itself eliminated by the first round and the second round was a fraternal runoff between the UDF mayor of Monflanquin, Daniel Soulage, and the RPR mayor of Villeneuve-sur-Lot, Michel Gonelle. Soulage won a by a hair. In 1997, however, the PS – with Jérôme Cahuzac – staged its revenge and narrowly defeated Soulage (UDF) in the runoff, with 50.7% for Cahuzac. In 2002, the pendulum swung back to the right – Alain Merly, the UDF-UMP mayor of Prayssas, defeated Cahuzac in the runoff, with 51.8%. Merly served only one term, retiring before the 2007 election. Cahuzac, trying to regain his old seat, faced Jean-Louis Bruguière, a famous counter-terrorism magistrate. Cahuzac defeated Bruguière in the second round, winning 52.1%.

The 2012 election was different from all others. Jérôme Cahuzac, who had just been named to cabinet and was riding on wave of notoriety (and popularity), won a record 46.9% by the first round and steamrolled the UMP’s candidate, Jean-Louis Costes, in the second round with 61.5%. Cahuzac likely received a substantial local boost from his nomination to cabinet, a ‘cabinet effect’ which benefited a few other of his (former) colleagues in June 2012.

No less than seventeen candidates faced off in the first round of the by-election.

The UMP candidate, as in June 2012, was Jean-Louis Costes, the mayor and general councillor for (the strongly left-wing) Fumel and the leader of the departmental opposition in the general council. Jean-Louis Costes appears to be on his party’s right – he is a close sympathizer of the Mouvement initiative et liberté (MIL), a hardright Gaullist movement known for its strongly anti-leftist, anti-immigration and anti-Islam attitudes. Its ranks include the likes of Bernard Debré, Yves Guéna, Charles Pasqua and Jean Tiberi. He faced some minor right-wing dissidents, including Joffrey Raphaël-Leygues, the 18-year old grandson of former UNR deputy Jacques Raphaël-Leygues (and great-great-grandson of Georges Leygues), who ran as an ‘extreme centrist’ (I really love that).

The PS candidate was Bernard Barral, a retired 66-year old businessman. The left was shaken up for a few weeks in early-mid May by persistent rumours that Jérôme Cahuzac would seek to regain his old seat as a PS dissident candidate. Cahuzac has taken his ‘forced’ resignation and subsequent lynching by his former colleagues quite badly – while he has admitted that he did have an offshore account, he doesn’t seem to think that it was a big deal and he feels that he has been betrayed by his old party and colleagues. He seems quite intent on taking his revenge, and he is out for blood – particularly Socialist blood. In early May, he apparently surveyed the ground for a potential dissident candidacy and said – with such chutzpah – that “some are speaking for me without a mandate to do so”. A poll by LH2 showed that he would have won 11% as a dissident candidate. He ultimately decided against running, but it’s quite clear that he intends to stage a comeback – perhaps in the 2014 local elections in Villeneuve-sur-Lot. The PS also faced FG and EELV candidates.

The FN candidate was 23-year old Etienne Bousquet-Cassagne, the departmental secretary (leader) of the FN in the department. Bousquet-Cassagne symbolizes a new generation of FN candidates being promoted by the party’s leader, Marine Le Pen. Seeking to assert her control over the party, sideline the ‘old guard’ and sanitize the far-right’s image (dédiabolisation), she has been promoting a new generation of young leaders and candidates to prominent roles in the FN’s leadership (Florian Philippot, a 31-year old Gaullist technocrat, is the FN’s vice-president and rising star). This strategy has ruffled a lot of feathers and displeased the more radical (neo-fascist) old guard of the FN, but it is quite irrelevant in the electoral scheme of things – FN dissidents have invariably been crushed and killed off by the FN leadership since 1998.

There was also a slew of perennial candidates – most of whom didn’t actually live in the department, let alone the constituency. Nicolas Miguet, leader of the anti-tax ‘Rally of French Taxpayers’ (RCF) and tax fraudster, ran here. You also had a monarchist candidate, a libertarian, one for the far-left (NPA), a Pirate and a few other jokers.

Turnout was 45.88%, down from 64.16% in 2007 but nonetheless an excellent turnout for a by-election.

Jean-Louis Costes (UMP) 28.71% (+1.71%)
Etienne Bousquet-Cassagne (FN) 26.04% (+10.33%)
Bernard Barral (PS) 23.69% (-23.17%)
Marie-Hélène Loiseau (FG) 5.08% (+0.58%)
Anne Carpentier (Parti d’en rire) 3.28%
Lionel Feuillas (EELV) 2.78% (+0.75%)
Yamina Kichi (MoDem) 2.33%
Benoît Frison-Roche (DVD) 2.32%
Hervé Lebreton (SE) 1.69%
Joffrey-Raphaël Leygues (DVC) 1.44%
Maria-Fé Garay (NPA) 1.11% (+0.46%)
François Asselineau (UPR) 0.58%
Nicolas Miguet (RCF) 0.42%
Cédric Levieux (Pirate) 0.19%
Stéphane Geyres (Libertarian) 0.17%
Michel Garcia-Luna (AR) 0.16%
Rachid Nekkaz (RSD) 0.00% (0 votes!)

Turnout in the second round was 52.47%. Blancs et nuls votes (invalid) stood at 7.48%, up from 2.18% in the first round.

Jean-Louis Costes (UMP) 53.76%
Etienne Bousquet-Cassagne (FN) 46.24%

The PS candidate was eliminated by the first round, similar to what happened in March in the Oise’s 2nd constituency. In this case, however, it is even worse. The Oise result was bad for the PS, no doubt about that, but it was a right-wing constituency (and one which has been moving rightwards consistently since 1981) – Sarkozy won 56% in the runoff there and Hollande had placed third in the first round with only 22% of the vote. This constituency, however, is a bellwether constituency (not a left-wing stronghold as the 2012 results indicate). Of the seven ‘normal’ by-elections since June 2012 (again, excluding idiosyncratic Wallis-et-Futuna), this is the first one in a seat which Hollande won in the runoff.

After losing in the Oise, the PS lost two by-elections in constituencies for French citizens living abroad. The PS did, all things considered, fairly well in the first constituency (United States and Canada), winning 25% (with an additional 7.4% for the EELV candidate, who had backed the PS in 2012) and saving face (despite losing) in the second round with 46.8%. But that was probably due, in large part, to the flukes of low turnout (13%) and the personality of the UMP’s candidate, Frédéric Lefebvre – a former junior cabinet minister under Sarkozy who had been parachuted into the constituency in June 2012, much to the distaste of the local right-wing networks. Although Frédéric Lefebvre managed to win the seat in the by-election, his result was nothing to write home about.

However, the result for the PS in the eight constituency (Italy, Greece, Turkey, Israel) was disastrous – in a seat which it had won in 2012 (but that was a huge fluke), it was eliminated by the first round with only 14.6% of the vote. But while that was a bad result, no doubt about it, the PS’ victory in June 2012 owed a lot to the fraternal (Israel-induced) divisions of the right. Hollande had won 37% in that constituency in the May 2012 runoff, with Sarkozy handily winning on the back of quasi-unanimous support (around 90%) in Israel. The UMP candidate in June 2012, who ran again in the by-election, was accused by a right-wing dissident of being too pro-Palestinian (even if she was quite pro-Israeli, just not to the extent of the dissident in question), and the dissident went on to back the PS in the second round. In the by-election, the PS was hurt by a EELV candidate who drew a lot of left-wing/PS voters away in Greece, and it was eliminated by the first round – the runoff was a fraternal battle between the UMP’s Valérie Hoffenberg and Meyer Habib, running for Jean-Louis Borloo’s ostensibly centre-right Union of Democrats and Independents (UDI). Meyer Habib, who was publicly endorsed by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, won the second round with 53.4%.

The PS’ result is beyond disastrous. To be fair, commentary on the loss of nearly half of their votes from June 2012 (or -23.2% in percentage terms) should be tempered by the observation that the PS’ result in June 2012 was abnormally high given the constituency’s swingy nature – a lot of those votes were likely fairly non-ideological personal votes for Cahuzac, who, back then, was something of a rising star and quite popular both in his constituency and France as a whole. Cahuzac’s 46.9% in the first round in June 2012 should not be interpreted as a sign that this is a solidly left-wing seat or that 46% represents the average share for the PS. Nevertheless, even when compared to more ‘normal’ results – 2007, 2002 and 1997 – it is clear that the PS has taken quite a tumble. In 2007, Cahuzac won 37.6% in the first round. In 2002, he had won 34% and in 1997 he had taken 27.6% (his gains between 1997 and 2002 likely came from the PCF and the Greens, whose votes collapsed in 2002). Another reference point for comparison might be presidential and regional elections: in 2012, Hollande won 27.6% in the first round in the constituency; in 2010, the PS list had won 33.8% in the constituency for the first round of regional elections; in 2007, Royal won 25.8% in the first round.

As in the last by-elections, an important share of the PS’ 2012/2007 voters likely did not vote in the by-election. However, unlike in past by-elections, the first round results do not indicate a clear correlation between higher abstention and a higher share for the left either in the by-election or in 2012. In fact, turnout was generally lower where the FN did best. Furthermore, abstention in the first round (54%) was much lower here than in the Oise (67%) – sure, the Oise is more abstentionist by nature, but we might have expected that turnout would be rather low here considering circumstances: a large left-wing electorate (one much larger than in the Oise) tempted to not show up, a little-known PS candidate and the stench associated with the Cahuzac scandal.

We may reasonably assume that some ‘lost’ PS voters did in fact turn out, but voted for other leftist/left-leaning candidates: either the FG or EELV candidates but also Anne Carpentier, the aforementioned left-inclined satirical candidate who won 3.3% in the first round (more than the EELV candidate). There is some evidence, it would seem, that the FN’s strongest gains came from precincts where the left had done well in its happier days – the PS will hate to admit it, but some of its past voters voted for the FN this year.

As always, analysis of this election is clouded by partisanship, mindless blabbering by the inevitable self-proclaimed ‘experts’ and journalists who have no clue about elections coming up with their grand theories. One particular factor merits attention, to help explain the PS’ catastrophic result. The PS leadership has preferred to go the easy way out, finding scapegoats for its (largely self-induced) defeat: the Greens split the vote (reasonable, but the PS-FN gap was 770 votes and EELV won 914 votes, meaning that 84% of the EELV’s voters would have needed to vote PS for it to qualify) and it’s all Cahuzac’s fault. Cahuzac likely contributed to aggravating the situation for the PS, but the PS’ defeat was self-induced, by external (the government’s unpopularity, the crisis) and internal factors.

Results by canton of the first and second rounds of the by-election (own map)

Results by canton of the first and second rounds of the by-election (own map)

At the local level, the PS had a mediocre candidate who lacked an obvious geographic base in the constituency. Cahuzac had a local base in Villeneuve-sur-Lot, and he did a few points better in Villeneuve-sur-Lot than the constituency as a whole. Jean-Louis Costes, the UMP’s candidate, is mayor and general councillor of Fumel, a strongly left-wing town (62% Hollande). This hadn’t been of much help against Cahuzac in June 2012, although he did manage to hold Cahuzac down to 56% in Fumel (the commune). However, in a by-election against a little-known PS candidate with no similar local implantation, this was a major boon for Costes: he won 49.8% in the canton of Fumel, against 22% for the PS and 15.2% for the FN. In contrast, Barral (PS) peaked at only 28% in Tournon-d’Agenais and his support generally ranged from 20% to 25% in almost every other canton.

The UMP’s result, by itself, was nothing exceptional. In past by-elections, despite the unpopularity of UMP president Jean-François Copé since the November 2012 kerfuffle, the UMP’s vote had increased by a fairly substantial margin in the first round – on average by 7 or 8%. The only exception was the last by-election in the 8th foreign constituency, but that was most likely due to the right’s eternal internecine warfare there and very low turnout. Yet, in the Lot-et-Garonne, Costes won only 28.7% – only a marginal improvement on his 27% from June 2012, a result which had been very poor – in 2007, the UMP won 42% in the first round and in 2002, 30%. Some right-wing votes were probably dispersed between the many minor right-wing/centrist candidates and, to a certain extent, the FN.

The Left Front (FG) was, once again, unable to benefit from the PS’ collapse – its candidate won only 5.1%, a minor improvement (0.6%) on a fairly paltry showing in 2012. This harks back to two episodes where the PCF was in opposition to a PS government – from 1984 to 1986 and from 1988 to 1993. However, in both cases, the PCF was only able to stop the bleeding – it did not gain (a significant amount of) votes.

In the second round, Costes (UMP) won with 53.8%, a slightly wider margin than the UMP’s victory in Oise-2 (51.4%) and, on the whole, a fairly good result for the UMP given that the FN had a lot of momentum going into the runoff and many were wondering whether or not the FN would be able to pull off an upset victory.

Nevertheless, it is another excellent result for the FN – after gaining 10 points from 2012 in the first round, the FN increased its vote in the runoff by some 20 points (nearly 8,000 additional votes). What is more, unlike in the Oise-2, the FN candidate won more votes in the runoff (15,647) than Marine Le Pen had won herself in April 2012 (some 13,000). The UMP candidate gained 8,762 votes between the two rounds.

While left>FN transfers undeniably exist, the June 2012 legislative election showed that they were far less significant than right>FN transfers. In 9 right/FN runoffs in the last legislative election, there was only a weak correlation (0.21) between left-wing strength in the first round and FN gains between both rounds; there was, however, a 0.64 correlation between left-wing strength and a decline in voter turnout between between both rounds. Turnout declined by an average of 8% in the 9 right/FN battles in June, it only increased by 1.2% in left/FN battles. The percentage of voters who turned out in the runoff but cast blank or invalid votes was also very high (over 10%) in right/FN runoffs.

However, as in Oise-2, turnout increased (pretty significantly here, to the point where turnout was higher than abstention) between both rounds although there was, a large increase in invalid votes. Once again, this begs the question – where did the FN’s nearly 8,000 new voters come from?

In the Oise, an ecological inference analysis by Joël Gombin had found that 43% of the PS candidate’s first round voter had voted for the FN candidate in the runoff, with the remnants split between staying home, invalid votes and the UMP. However, a study done by the PS federation in the department disproved this ‘transfer’ theory in favour of the ‘substitution’ theory which holds that there was a significant change in the composition of the electorate between the two rounds, with first round leftists not voting being compensated by a large increase in turnout on the far-right. Analyzing 84% of the listes d’émargement (signing sheets where voters sign their initials after casting their ballot), the PS found that there was a large change in the electorate – about 4,700 first round voters did not vote a week later, but about 6,350 voters who had voted in the first round did so in the second round. This observation was more in line with the results of the 9 right/FN runoff in June 2012.

It is quite possible that the same thing happened in the Lot-et-Garonne, but there is also a strong possibility that a significant number of left-wing voters from the first round voted FN in the second round. If this was true, this would be a major defeat for the old strategy of the ‘republican front’ (anti-FN alliances). Unlike in the Oise, where the local PS candidate had not endorsed either the UMP or the FN candidate, the PS here endorsed the UMP candidate and Costes – fairly ironically given how he’s on his party’s right (MIL) – embraced the ‘republican front’. The ‘republican front’ strategy has been challenged and almost thoroughly discredited since 2010. On the one hand, the UMP no longer automatically endorses the left against the FN and many UMP leaders – Copé first and foremost – have had ambiguous statements on all this. The UMP nowadays tends to prefer the ni ni strategy – neither the left nor the FN – although the party remains split between a moderate faction of the ruling elite which still has sympathy for the ‘republican front’ and a more conservative activist base which has a large minority favouring open electoral alliances with the FN. The PS, meanwhile, still has a preference for the ‘republican front’ but the UMP’s strategy has unnerved it, to the point where some local PS candidates will endorse neither the UMP nor the FN. Recently, there were allegations that the PS in the Vaucluse covertly supported FN candidate (now deputy) Marion Maréchal-Le Pen by not withdrawing its candidate from the three-way runoff in which Marion Maréchal-Le Pen emerged victorious.

Finally, the continuation of a ‘republican front’ strategy tends to play right into the FN’s hand. A large part of Marine Le Pen’s rhetoric is denouncing the corrupt ‘UMPS’ elites – a message incessantly regurgitated by her new circle of obedient young leaders and candidates, including the FN candidate in this constituency. A ‘republican front’ between UMP and PS can easily be presented by the FN as ‘proof’ that both parties are, in reality, two sides of the same coin and are in cahoots with one another. And neither the UMP nor the PS try very hard to disprove that – PS deputies recently found common cause with UMP deputies in significantly watering down the government’s post-Cahuzac transparency and ethics legislation.

In the first round, the left (PS-FG-EELV) won around 10,400 votes (11,872 if you include Carpentier, the NPA and the Pirates). There were an additional 3,984 invalid votes in the second round, and we can safely assume that most of those were from left-wingers. 992 additional valid votes were cast in the second round. The UMP candidate gained 8,762 votes – the additional votes from the MoDem and the other right-wingers/centrists give him an additional 2,437 votes from the first round. There are therefore about 6,300 additional UMP votes which came from other ‘sources’. The FN candidate gained about 8,000 new votes. On these numbers, it would appear that the FN gained a large number of its additional votes from left-wing voters. But this is an extremely rudimentary and  unscientific calculation. It can neither prove nor disprove the ‘transfer’ or ‘substitution’ theories.

Legislative by-elections since June 2012, comparison chart (own work)

Legislative by-elections since June 2012, comparison chart (own work)

As in the Oise-2, this by-election has shown two things – the PS is unpopular and faces an electoral drubbing if these numbers hold up in a national election; the FN is the only political force in the country which is truly on the upswing and it has proven that it has a remarkable ability to gain significant support from one round to another in duel runoffs. The cordon sanitaire is – in good part – gone. The FN has a far less ‘toxic’ image. Marine Le Pen’s dédiabolisation efforts are paying off, and many voters – left and right – are willing to vote for the FN over a more ‘acceptable’ party in the runoff when their preferred candidate is eliminated. We cannot treat voters as mathematical, rational and predictable individuals who can be expected to follow the directions given by their party of choice. Despite the strong enmity between national PS and FN leadership, there is some overlap between both parties. Some left-wing voters will prefer the FN over the right when faced with that choice.

The PS has lost four seats in by-elections, two of those were lost by the first round. PS candidates lost votes in all seven ‘normal’ by-elections, in all but one they lost a significant amount. The PS was eliminated by the first round in a total of four out of these seven by-elections. In France, midterm by-election loses for the governing party are the rule, so this is not particularly surprising although still quite spectacular.

Iran 2013

The first round of presidential elections were held in Iran on June 14, 2013. The President of Iran (رئیس‌جمهور ایران) is elected by universal suffrage to a four-year term and is limited to serve two consecutive terms, but may run for a third nonconsecutive term even after having served two consecutive terms. The Iranian President is the highest directly-elected official in the country, but Iran is not a presidential republic and the President is hardly the highest authority in the country. Since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, Iran is a theocratic Islamic republic.

Iran’s political system

The Islamic Republic is governed on the basis of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s theory of velayat-e faqih which holds that, in the absence of the Twelfth Imam of Shi’a Islam (the Mahdi, who disappeared and is believed to be in occultation), the state should be ruled by a ‘guardian jurist’. Article 5 of the Iranian constitution reads: “During the occultation of the Wali al-‘Asr (may God hasten his reappearance), the leadership of the Ummah devolve upon the just and pious person, who is fully aware of the circumstances of his age, courageous, resourceful, and possessed of administrative ability.” In practice, this ‘just and pious person’ is the Supreme Leader, currently Ali Khamenei, who succeeded Khomeini upon his death in 1989. The Supreme Leader of Iran is the real head of state.

The Supreme Leader appoints the leaders of the most powerful institutions in Iran: the commanders of the armed forces, the director of state radio and TV, the heads of the major religious foundations, the prayer leaders in city mosques, the members of national security council and the head of the judiciary. In addition, the Supreme Leader appoints six of the twelve members of the influential Guardian Council. Theoretically, the Supreme Leader is appointed by (and can be impeached by) and responsible to the Assembly of Experts, a directly-elected body of 86 clerics. However, the Assembly of Experts is subservient to the Supreme Leader, given that candidates for the  Assembly of Experts – alongside candidates for all other offices in Iran (the presidency, the Parliament) – must be vetted and approved by the Guardian Council.

The Guardian Council is made of up twelve members: six Islamic clerics appointed by the Supreme Leader himself, and another six jurists elected by the Parliament (Majles) from candidates nominated by the chief of the judiciary (who is, in turn, nominated by the Supreme Leader). The Guardian Council has power as legislative, judicial and electoral authority. It must approve all bills passed by the Majles, it has the power to veto bills, it interprets the constitution and it vets all candidates for President, parliament and the Assembly of Experts. The unelected Expediency Council resolves disputes between the Majles and the Guardian Council.

Simplified diagram of Iran’s political structure (source:

The Supreme Leader may also count on the full support of the Revolutionary Guards, a 125-thousand strong military unit (or militia) which is extremely powerful. It is a conservative bulwark against reformism and opposition to the regime, and has the power to block major initiatives and promote its own ultra-conservative agenda. The Revolutionary Guards have become very powerful under Ali Khamenei, who has needed to build a large network of powerful supporters to assert his legitimacy (as we shall see, he assumed power as Supreme Leader with fairly limited legitimacy in 1989). The Revolutionary Guards control a large share of the heavily state-controlled Iranian economy, the Revolutionary Guards hold important stakes in oil, petrochemicals, telecoms, agrifood, electronics, armaments and infrastructure. For example, the Guard’s business conglomerate – Khatam ol-Anbia – have a subcontractor which employs 25,000 and has worked in over 1800 infrastructure projects. The Revolutionary Guards also have a large intelligence operation, a foreign operations division which trains Iranian allies such as Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Revolutionary Guards veterans now form the dominant elite in Iranian politics. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is a former Guard, and most high-profile cabinet posts and a majority of seats in Parliament are now held by Guard veterans. Replacing the previously dominant clerical elites.

The power amassed by the Revolutionary Guards, especially after the regime’s brutal crackdown on post-election protests in 2009, has led some to claim that Iran has transformed from a theocracy to a military dictatorship.

The President is the second highest authority in the country after the Supreme Leader, and the Iranian presidency is not an irrelevant office – the President may not control the military, national security and foreign policy, but he does have some amount of influence over Tehran’s general orientation (even in matters of foreign policy) and has significant power over economic and domestic policies. The President appoints Vice Presidents, the cabinet (which is confirmed by the Majles), sits in the Supreme National Security Council (which notably deals with nuclear energy issues), declares war and states of emergency and serves a deputy commander-in-chief of the armed forces.

The constitution’s definition of the qualifications of the Presidents are open-ended and left to the interpretation of the Guardian Council: candidates must possess ‘administrative capacity and resourcefulness’, have ‘a good past record’, exhibit ‘trustworthiness and piety’ and hold ‘convinced belief in the fundamental principles of the Islamic Republic of Iran and the official madhhab (doctrine) of the country’. The constitution is vague on whether or not women may run for office, but the Guardian Council has ruled that only males can run for the presidency and it has never approved female candidates for the presidency.

The Guardian Council significantly reduces the field of presidential contenders from hundreds to a handful. It cuts out a lot of unknown quixotic candidates, any women candidates but has also – controversially – struck down some more notable candidates. This year, it confirmed only eight out of 686 candidates. While the Guardian Council has approved reformist candidates – even some critical of the regime’s direction – it is fairly clear that approved candidates are tolerated by the Supreme Leader.


The first President of Iran after the Shah was overthrown and the Islamic Republic established in 1979 was Abulhassan Banisadr (who assumed the presidency in February 1980), a non-cleric. Ayatollah Khomeini originally insisted that the presidency should be held by non-clerics. However, Banisadr soon fell out of favour with Ayatollah Khomeini and was promptly impeached after a bit over a year in office in June 1981. He is now an exiled dissident, living in France. Mohammad-Ali Rajai of the Islamic Republican Party (IRP) was elected with 91% in July 1981, but he was assassinated after less than a month in office (in August 1981) by the opposition People’s Mujahedin of Iran.

The first Iranian president of any relevance was Ali Khamenei, the current Supreme Leader, who served as President under Ayatollah Khomeini between October 1981 and August 1989. Mir-Hossein Mousavi served as his Prime Minister. Ali Khamenei’s presidency was marked quasi-entirely by the Iran-Iraq War, which lasted between September 1980 and August 1988. Domestically, the early years after the Islamic Revolution were fairly tumultuous, with armed opposition and nonviolent protests against the new regime. Tehran responded with repression and terror: thousands of members of insurgent groups were killed (notably in 1988 with the mass executions of People’s Mujahedin of Iran prisoners), ethnic and religious minorities faced (and continue to face, in large part) persecution (or, at best, state-sanctioned discrimination or exclusion from politics) and the government imposed a strict (often restrictive) moral code based on sharia law – a major break, of course, with the Western-oriented secularism of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi’s autocratic rule. On the diplomatic scene, Iran was isolated from the major regional and world powers – relations with the United States, the former Shah’s top ally, had been dead since the 1979-1980 hostage crisis (although the US played to both sides during the Iran-Iraq war, covertly provided Iran with weapons through Iran-Contra), the Soviet Union was hostile to the new religious fundamentalist power in Tehran (although it too played both sides against each other during the conflict) and the Sunni Gulf monarchies feared that Iran would revitalize domestic Islamist/Shi’a opposition (notably Saudi Arabia).

Presidents under Ayatollah Khomeini’s rule played a fairly subdued rule, in comparison to Presidents since the 1990s. Ayatollah Khomeini held the bulk of the powers, while the President and Prime Minister competed for the spoils. Khomeini died in June 1989 and was succeded by Ali Khamenei, even though he was only a mid-level Shi’a cleric (Hojatoleslam) rather than, as the constitution originally required, a marja’ (source of emulation – high-level cleric). Khamenei, however, was a loyal associate of the late Khomeini. In March 1989, Khomeini’s original designated heir, Ayatollah Hussein-Ali Montazeri had been sidelined after a series of comments critical of the regime, particularly human rights abuses and Khomeini’s fatwa against author Salman Rushdie. Montazeri challenged Khamenei’s legitimacy to be Supreme Leader, and became a vocal dissident until his death in 2009.

Khamenei was succeeded as President by Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the speaker of Parliament since 1980. Rafsanjani, a theologian who hailed from an elite family, was a pragmatic conservative who focused his efforts on economic reconstruction after the Iran-Iraq war and escaping Iran’s international isolation. He liberalized the economy, measures which proved popular with the middle and upper-class elites of the new Islamic Republic, but which bypassed the poorer, rural population which grew to dislike Rafsanjani. Between 1990 and 1995, Iran suffered the effects of the second ‘wave’ of US economic sanctions which caused the Iranian Rial’s value to plunge by 80%. Under his presidency, political opponents and certain religious minorities continued to be persecuted. Throughout Rafsanjani’s administration, he feuded with ultraconservative elements of the regime, which, with the Supreme Leader’s backing, controlled several institutions (notably the Revolutionary Guards).

In the 1997 election, Mohammad Khatami, a darkhorse reformist cleric, defeated the conservative favourite in a landslide, taking over 70% of the vote by the first round. He was carried to victory by the urban middle-classes eager for reform, women, the youth (students) and ethnic/religious minorities. He was reelected to a second term in 2001, this time with 78%.

Khatami promised democratization, rule of law, more rights for women and minorities, easing strict moral laws and liberalizing the economy. Economically, where Iran’s president is the most powerful, Khatami pursued his predecessor’s liberalization policies, aimed at industrialization, promoting private sector growth, boosting investment and privatizing a wide array of state-owned companies (the Islamic Revolution was followed by a string of nationalizations). His policies were somewhat successful, but unemployment remained a major problem and economic recovery could only go so far with the economic sanctions against Iran. After 2001, the Bush administration in Washington continued to isolate Iran, despite Khatami’s reformist desires, labelling Iran as a member of the (in)famous “Axis of evil”. Domestically, many of his reformist efforts were undermined by the Supreme Leader and the conservative institutions. Rogue elements in the conservative-dominated security apparatus murdered a number of dissidents, part of a ‘serial murder of dissidents’ began in 1988. In 1999, paramilitary groups (Revolutionary Guard, Basij) crushed a large student uprising. The conservative judiciary closed a number of new reformist newspapers, many of which had flourished after Khatami’s election. The Parliament

After 2003, the conservatives were resurgent. There was a real backlash, fueled by disillusion with Khatami’s inability to advance his reformist agenda and his perceived inaction. The conservatives were able to mobilize public opinion by playing on issues such as national security or the nuclear program. However, to be sure, the conservatives were helped in their efforts by the Guardian Council. In the 2003 local elections and then the 2004 parliamentary elections, the Guardian Council banned thousands of candidates from standing, including incumbent reformist MPs and many other reformist candidates. Conservatives on better terms with the Supreme Leader won a wide majority in the Majlis.

The 2005 presidential election was one of the most disputed elections in Iranian history, and the only one which went to a second round ballot. In the first round, former President Rafsanjani won 21%, while Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the underdog conservative populist mayor of Tehran, squeaked through and placed second with 19.4%. The reformist vote was split between three candidates (Mehdi Karroubi with 17.2%, Mostafa Moeen with 13.9% and Mohsen Mehralizadeh with 4.4%). In the second round, Ahmadinejad defeated Rafsanjani with 61.7% of the vote.

Ahmadinejad’s election marked a conservative reaction after two terms of reformist ‘rule’. But it also marked a victory for populism over the (clerical) elitism embodied by Khatami and Rafsanjani. Ahmadinejad campaigned on an anti-corruption, anti-establishment populist conservative platform, which emphasized his ‘modest roots’. Indeed, unlike his predecessors, Ahmadinejad came from a working-class secular background, rather than from an elite or religious/clerical background. His father was a blacksmith and he was born in a small town 90km from Tehran

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s two terms in office do not require a lengthy explanation, considering how often Iran has made the news since 2005, often because of Ahmadinejad’s statements or actions. In general, his presidency has been marked by heightened tensions with the US and the west, a slide back into international isolation and pariah state status, a harsher enforcement of religious morality laws, a deterioration in human rights and womens’ rights, and a struggling economy (in part because of foreign sanctions).

On the foreign stage, Ahmadinejad gained notoriety for his vitriolic attacks on Israel or the United States or his various provocative acts (denying the Holocaust, the “wiping Israel off the map” comment – even if that comment was probably mistranslated) which have incensed public opinion in the west.

Like most Iranian politicians – even the reformists – Ahmadinejad is a vocal supporter of Iran’s controversial nuclear program. Although the United States and Europe believe that Iran could be developing nuclear weapons, the Iranian authorities have consistently said that they have no intentions of developing nuclear weapons and that their nuclear program is only for peaceful purposes. Tehran has defended its “sovereign right” to develop such a program. Iran has had a nuclear program since the 1950s, when the United States actively cooperated with the Shah’s regime to aid the development of a peaceful nuclear program.

However, because Iran has tended to be less than forthcoming about its intentions and the details of its nuclear programs, there remains very strong (and legitimate) suspicions that it is lying and covertly developing nuclear weapons. Such suspicions have been fueled by continued revelations of concealed plants (uranium conversion and enrichment plants in central Iran). Western nations contend that Iran has violated its obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (signed by the Shah in 1968) various times.

Ahmadinejad, as President, does not directly deal with the nuclear program, but he has some degree of influence. Under his administration, Tehran has kept a hardline on the nuclear program and it has slid its feet in quixotic negotiations with Western powers while continuing to develop its nuclear program in the background. His predecessor, Khatami, had been slightly more pragmatic and consensual on the issue. He had expressed support, alongside Saudi Arabia and Syria, for an initiative to rid the Middle East of nuclear weapons. But Khatami did not have the final say in the program, and Iran continued to develop its civilian nuclear program under his rule (although Khamenei briefly suspended what appeared to be weapons-related technologies in 2003).

In 2006, Iran resumed uranium enrichment at Natanz, breaking a 2004 agreement with European countries. It later opened a heavy water plant. The UN responded with sanctions, while the United States (under Bush and since under Obama) and Israel launched cyberattacks on computer systems at Natanz. Negotiations between Iran and the west have invariably been unfruitful.

In September 2011, Iran opened its first civilian nuclear power plant, at Bushehr. The plant was built in close cooperation with Russia. The groundwork for the plant had been launched in 1974, before the revolution.

The response to Tehran’s defiant stance has been a whole wave of tough sanctions. Despite the pretensions to the contrary of the Iranian government, these sanctions have badly hurt the country’s economy and undermined domestic attempts to reform the economy. The UNSC approved the first round of sanctions back in December 2006 (banning the import and export of materials and technology used in uranium enrichment), and approved new sanctions in June 2010 (curtailing military purchases, trade and financial transactions by the Revolutionary Guards). In November 2011, new sanctions aimed at Iran’s central bank and commercial banks took effect, while the US imposed sanctions on companies involved in the nuclear, petrochemical and oil industries. In July 2012, the EU announced an embargo on Iranian oil which has severely restricted Iran’s ability to sell its top export. Iran has acknowledged that oil exports had fallen by 40% in 2012, at a major cost for Iran. Earlier this month, the Obama administration blacklisted what it describes as a global network of front companies controlled by the Iranian leadership, which the US alleges are used to hide assets and generate billions in revenues.

These sanctions have taken their toll on the Iranian economy, especially in recent months. In October 2012, the Iranian rial plunged by 40%. Inflation is raging, reaching 30% in 2012, its highest level since 1995. Inflation is projected to be 27% this year. In April 2013, Iranians rushed to supermarkets to hoard basic foodstuffs and goods, over new fears of price spikes from a change in the official exchange rate. However, economic sanctions are only part of the explanation – domestically, the Iranian government is guilty of woeful mismanagement of the economy.

Iran’s energy consumption has increased significantly in recent years, and because the country’s oil refining capacities are limited, it has been forced to import about 40% of its gasoline. The Iranian government spends huge amounts each year on unsustainable subsidies on food and energy (including fuel). In 2007, a gasoline rationing plan was introduced by the government, sparking large protests against Ahmadinejad’s government. The rationing plan ultimately failed. In 2010, the government announced an extremely ambitious subsidy reform which aimed to replace subsidies with targeted social assistance to the poorer families. As a result of the elimination of these subsidies, transportation prices skyrocketed and cash grants to poorer families was unable to compensate for the elimination of subsidies. The IMF and the World Bank have hailed this reform as a step in the right direction, but the reform’s success has been undermined by sanctions, government mismanagement and corruption.

Ahmadinejad was reelected in 2009, officially taking 62.6% of the votes in the first round against 33.8% for his reformist rival, former Prime Minister Mir-Hossein Mousavi. The opposition claimed to have won, and many believe that the election was rigged in Ahmadinejad’s favour. However, there has been no credible evidence to suggest that there was indeed massive fraud, of the kind which totally falsified the results. There was, to be sure, some fairly fishy things going on and there was likely, at the least, localized fraud or vote rigging. However, Ahmadinejad probably won the election – if there was rigging, it was probably not enough to make up for Ahmadinejad’s huge margin of victory.

Mass protests, the largest of the kind since 1979, swept through Tehran and other major cities across Iran between June and February 2010. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei unflinchingly backed President Ahmadinejad throughout the duration of the protests. The Revolutionary Guards and the Basij militias, both of which answer to the Supreme Leader, brutally repressed the protests, killing up to 70 protesters and arresting over 4,000. Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, another reformist candidate, have been under house arrest since February 2011.

Ahmadinejad’s second term was marked by a major rift between the President and the Supreme Leader. During his first term, Ahmadinejad had been seen as a fairly loyal ally of the Supreme Leader, who, in return, openly backed him in the runup to the 2009 election and provided him with the tools to remain in power despite the huge post-election protests. However, Ahmadinejad is an ambitious politician and sought to limit the clerics’ involvement in politics. In July 2009, Ahmadinejad irked Khamenei by nominating his close ally Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei to the office of First Vice President. Mashaei was forced to resign by Khamenei less than ten days after his resignation, but he has served as Ahmadinejad’s Chief of Staff throughout his second term. Like Ahmadinejad, Mashaei is a secular conservative who is hostile towards clerical involvement in politics. Additionally, Mashaei is regarded as a ‘heretic’ and ‘deviant’ by the Islamist leadership because of past conciliatory statements about Israel (he once remarked that Iranians are friends of Israelis) and his more relaxed views on religious matters. Rhetorically, Mashaei has also tended to go against the regime’s official rhetorical line (based on Shi’a Islamism and notions of pan-Islamism) and talked more along the lines of Persian nationalism.

In April 2011, Ahmadinejad dismissed intelligence minister Heydar Moslehi who was immediately reinstated by the Supreme Leader. Ahmadinejad protested by staging a 10-day long ‘walkout’ of cabinet meetings and other official functions, creating an anti-Ahmadinejad furor within religious conservative ranks which might have forced him to resign from office if he had not grudgingly accepted to end his act in May.

In the 2012 legislative elections, anti-Ahmadinejad conservatives crushed pro-Ahmadinejad conservatives (and reformists).


Iranian politics is often presented to foreign eyes as a battle between conservatives and reformists. To a certain extent, this dichotomy is true. However, it is also rather reductive in that it hides internal divisions within both the conservative and reformist tents. Ahmadinejad’s presidency, particularly his second term, highlighted the major divisions in the conservative coalition between secular, populist and nationalist conservatives like Ahmadinejad and Mashaei who wish to counter clerical influence in politics; and religious conservatives – known as ‘principlists’ – who are on better terms with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and adhere to Islamic fundamentalism which is more in line with Khamenei’s orientation. The term ‘reformist’ has been used to encompass a wide array of politicians more or less hostile to the conservative establishment (but still on good enough terms with it to be allowed to hold office) and supporting reforms (more civil rights, perhaps more rights for women and ethnic minorities, democratization and liberalization of the economy). Similar to the verligtes in apartheid South Africa, the Iranian reformists often seem to be misconstrued as being more radical and liberal than they actually are.

The Guardian Council approved only eight out of 686 presidential candidates. Most notably, it disqualified two major candidates. Of the eight candidates, two dropped out before the election, reducing the field to six.

Unsurprisingly, the Khamenei-controlled Guardian Council rejected Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei’s candidacy, which was widely seen as Ahmadinejad’s thinly-veiled bid for a third term. For the reasons outlined above, Mashaei was obviously unpalatable and a non-starter for the leadership.

Slightly more surprisingly, the Guardian Council rejected former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani (1989-1997), who is the current chairman of the Expediency Council. Rafsanjani, often described as a moderate conservative, has had a falling out with the Supreme Leader, probably because Rafsanjani is powerful in his own right and perhaps too independent and high-profile for Khamenei’s tastes, who has no desire for a repeat of  Ahmadinejad’s antics. Besides, while Rafsanjani didn’t back the 2009 protests, he indicated his desire for more freedom and less brutal crackdowns. The Guardian Council rejected Rafsanjani’s candidacy, and Khamenei did not intervene to nullify the Guardian Council’s decision (he had done so in 2005 to allow two reformists to run).

The disqualification of Mashaei meant that there was no pro-Ahmadinejad candidate in the race. Out of the eight original candidates, five could be considered as ‘principlist’ conservatives on good terms with Khamenei.

Saeed Jalili was originally hailed by local and international media alike as the ‘frontrunner’ and the ‘favourite’. Jalili has served as secretary of the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC), a position which made him Iran’s top nuclear negotiator in fruitless talks with western powers. Jalili, like Ahmadinejad and many of the ‘second generation’ of Iranian conservatives, served in the Revolutionary Guards during the Iran-Iraq war. During the conflict, Jalili saw heavy fighting and he lost a portion of his right leg. Jalili has never sought or won (to my knowledge) elected office and has served as a technocrat since the 1990s. After 2001, he worked in the Supreme Leader’s office. In 2005, Ahmadinejad appointed him as deputy minister for foreign affairs in charge of Europe and the Americas. In October 2007, he was named to the leadership of the SNSC, replacing Ali Larijani, a conservative who has since become speaker of the Majles. Jalili’s nomination was originally criticized because of his lack of experience, but he has gained a lot of goodwill with conservatives because of his tough, uncompromising stance in nuclear negotiations with Iran’s western rivals. He has often invoked the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists, which Tehran claims were organized by the US and Israel. As negotiator, he has twice refused bilateral meetings with the American representative on the 5+1 (US, Russia, China, UK, France, Germany).

Ironically, Jalili’s name recognition is probably higher in diplomatic circles outside Iran than with the Iranian electorate. Nevertheless, with his reputation as an ultraconservative loyal to the Supreme Leader – he was originally described as Khamenei’s preferred candidate. Early in the campaign, Jalili’s image as a simple and pious man boosted his image with the public, especially ultraconservative networks. At the same time, of all the conservative candidates, Jalili is also the one who was seen as being the less hostile to the much-subdued Ahmadinejad. Although Ahmadinejad has denied that he supported or voted for Jalili, in the final weeks there was a lot of buzz about how Jalili was Ahmadinejad’s secret candidate – some pro-Ahmadinejad politicians apparently endorsed Jalili. However, Jalili was backed by the Front of Islamic Revolution Stability, a conservative party led by two religious conservatives who have criticized Ahmadinejad and Mashaei’s “deviant movement” – Mashaei in particular is part of a minority which talks a lot about the imminent return of the Twelfth Imam, the Mahdi, something which really unnerves the regime’s Shi’a clerical elite.

The rumours of proximity to Ahmadinejad opened him to criticism from other presidential candidates, eager to tie him to the unpopular President and Ahmadinejad’s failed economic policies.

Late in the campaign, the Jalili buzz died down a bit and attention shifted to Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, the popular conservative mayor of Tehran since 2005. Ghalibaf, only 18 when the Shah was overthrown, had a long military (Revolutionary Guard) or police career before entering elective politics in 2005. During the Iran-Iraq war, Ghalibaf rose through the ranks of the Revolutionary Guard at stunning speed to become commander. After the war, as a close supporter of Ali Khamenei, he was promoted to the rank of general and named as commander of the Revolutionary Guard’s air forces in 1997. He played a major role in the violent repression of the 1999 student protests, an experience he proudly shows off to this day. After the 1999 protests, Khamenei named him chief of the Iranian police force, a position in which he directed repression against students and journalists. As chief of police, he also created the 110 hotline, Iran’s equivalent of the 911.

Ghalibaf ran for president in 2005 (as a conservative, obviously), placing fourth with 13.9%. At the time, his reformist critics saw him as the ‘militarist’ candidate. After the election, he was elected mayor of Tehran by the capital’s city council (replacing Ahmadinejad) and has since successfully wrestled control of the city council from pro-Ahmadinejad conservatives. As mayor, he has modernized his image and managed (almost) to make people forget his militaristic past. His mayoral administration has been quite successful: he modernized public services, improved public transit, opened new green spaces and inaugurated a new subway line. In 2008, he was shortlisted for the ‘World Mayor’ award. Ghalibaf has never been allied to Ahmadinejad, and has minced no words in criticizing the President, especially since 2009. He was touted as a potential conservative rival to the incumbent in the 2009 race, but opted against running. Nevertheless, as mayor he had no problem in crushing the reformist ‘Green Movement’ after the 2009 election.

Ghalibaf is a principlist conservative – therefore on good terms with Ahmadinejad. Prior to the election, he formed a 2+1 principlist coalition with two other candidates – Gholam Ali Haddad-Adel (who dropped out) and Ali-Akbar Velayati. Ghalibaf has tried to reinvent himself as a moderate, pragmatic conservative; but he has had a tough time with that. Real reformists dislike him, and Ghalibaf still has a knack for proudly showing off his role in the repression of the 1999, 2003 and 2009 protests. Ghalibaf was supported by Ali Larijani, the current speaker of the Majles.

Ghalibaf’s other main ally in the 2+1 coalition was Ali-Akbar Velayati. Velayati, like Jalili, is a technocrat with a diplomatic career. Unlike Ghalibaf, Jalili and Ahmadinejad, however, Velayati does not belong to the ‘second generation’ of conservatives who came of age with the Revolutionary Guards during the Iran-Iraq war. He was a young dissident under the Shah’s regime (roughed up by the Shah’s ruthless secret police, the SAVAK) and became a parliamentarian in 1980. In 1981, Velayati was named foreign minister (under then-President Ali Khamenei’s Prime Minister, Mir-Hossein Mousavi), an office he held until 1997 (continuing under Rafsanjani). As foreign minister, Velayati managed the best of both worlds in Khamenei’s eyes – being a tough conservative while not being loathed and isolated by the international community. With fellow candidates Mohsen Rezaee, he is on the Interpol’s most wanted list for his alleged role in the 1994 bombing of a Jewish community centre in Buenos Aires (Argentina), which killed 85. Argentina claims that Iran and Hezbollah were behind the attacks, and an Argentine judge issued an arrest warrant for Velayati in 2006. That same year, he was appointed to the Strategic Council on Foreign Relations and has been seen as the Supreme Leader’s main foreign policy adviser/ally. At times, he used this position to undermine Ahmadinejad’s policies on the world stage – there were (denied) rumours that, with Khamenei’s backing, he had been laying the groundwork for bilateral nuclear talks with the US.

Velayati is, naturally, a very close ally of Ali Khamenei and an opponent of Ahmadinejad. During one of the countless official debates, Velayati criticized Jalili for the ‘failure’ of nuclear negotiations (one of the first public criticisms from within the regime of the nuclear negotiations). He claims that Iran could have gotten acceptable deals out of the western powers at least three times, but each time Jalili’s hardline and Ahmadinejad’s obstinate refusals ‘sabotaged’ these deals. Nevertheless, Velayati is a conservative. He still favours a tough line against the United States and Israel, though he likely echoes Khamenei’s fears of Iran’s growing isolation as a result of Ahmadinejad’s presidency.

Only one candidate in the 2+1 coalition ended up dropping out before the vote: Gholam Ali Haddad-Adel, the weakest of the three-men coalition. An opponent under the Shah’s regime, he served in various governmental offices (mostly related to cultural or religious/moral affairs) and was speaker of the Majles between 2004 and 2008. Out of all the candidates, he was probably the closest to Khamenei. His daughter is married to Motjaba Khamenei, the son of the Supreme Leader who is widely seen as a potential successor to his father as Supreme Leader. Motjaba Khamenei is quite rich and has a strong base of support with the ultraconservative Basij and Revolutionary Guards, which might make up for his near total lack of theological credentials. He dropped out on June 11 without endorsing a single candidate, instead calling on his supporters to vote for one of the hardline conservatives.

The final conservative candidate was Mohsen Rezaee, who ran for president in 2005 (dropped out) and 2009 (third, 1.7%). He has served as secretary general of the Expediency Discernment Council (the body which resolves disputes between the Guardian Council and the Majles, presided by Rafsanjani) since 1997, and was commander of the Revolutionary Guards between 1981 and 1997. During the Shah’s regime, he was held in solitary confinement by SAVAK and later quit university to join an Islamist guerrilla group. After the Iran-Iraq war, Rezaee also founded Khatam Al-Anbia, an engineering firm controlled by the Revolutionary Guards, gained a doctorate in economics and – allegedly – played a role in the 1994 bombing of a Jewish community centre in Argentina. He is on Interpol’s most wanted list.

He dropped out of the 2005 presidential elections two days before polling day, so as to not split the conservative vote, and placed a paltry third with only 1.7% in the 2009 election. After the election, he denounced the official results, but as a conservative he did not join Mousavi and Karroubi’s Green Movement and dropped his complaints after the Supreme Leader’s warnings.

He presented himself as a pragmatic independent conservative focused on economic issues – he was one of the few candidates with economic credentials. He supports economic diversification, decentralization to local governments and wished to continue Ahmadinejad’s subsidy reform. Born in Khuzestan Province, a southwestern province bordering Iraq with an ethnically diverse population (Iranian Arabs, Lurs), he promised to include members of ethnic minorities (including Kurds) in his cabinet.

The ‘surprise’ candidate of the field of eight/six was Seyed Mohammad Gharazi, an obscure politician whose political heyday was in the 1980s and 1990s – when he served as minister of petroleum (1981-1985) and minister of posts (1985-1997). An independent candidate with a leftist background (like Mir-Hossein Mousavi), he focused his largely irrelevant campaign on economic issues – first and foremost inflation. At 71, he was the oldest candidate.

Hassan Rouhani (source:

Hassan Rouhani, a moderate, was the only religious cleric in the field. Rohani, a member of the Assembly of Experts (since 1999), the Expediency Council (since 1991) and the Supreme National Security Council (since 1989). He served as deputy speaker of the Majles between 1992 and 2000 and, as secretary of the SNSC between 1989 and 2005 he was Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator.

Born to a religious and dissident family in 1948, he started religious studies in Qom in 1960 (at the age of 12) but also followed legal studies at the University of Tehran (bachelor’s degree, 1972) and gained a masters (1995) and later a PhD (1999) at Glasgow Caledonian University in Scotland. He was active in Khomeini’s Islamist movement prior to the Islamic Revolution, and returned to Iran to serve in the Majles as early as 1979 (he served in the legislature until 2000). During the Iran-Iraq war, he was Deputy Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces between 1986 and 1991. After being named to the head of the SNSC in 1989, he gained the confidence of the Supreme Leader and, especially, then-President Rafsanjani. Rafsanjani appreciated his moderate conservatism and his talents as a negotiator.

He gained international prominence between 2002 and 2005, during the first years of the Iranian ‘nuclear crisis’. In 2003, right after the American invasion of Iraq and the discovery of Iran’s covert nuclear program, Rouhani managed to convince Khamenei of accepting a temporary suspension of uranium enrichment. In these pre-Ahmadinejad day, Tehran was more inclined towards compromise and reassuring the US and the main European powers (UK, Germany, France). However, his conciliatory stance did not please the Supreme Leader, who eventually replaced him as head of the SNSC with the more conservative Larijani in 2005 and Jalili in 2007. Rouhani claims that his 2003 compromise with the European ‘Troika’ saved Iran from an “American-Israeli invasion”. However, radicals and ultraconservatives accused him of conceding too much to the Troika and weakening Iran. Saeed Jalili’s spokesperson, for example, has been very critical of Rouhani’s moderation in the handling of the nuclear dossier between 2003 and 2005.

Rouhani is a close supporter of former President Rafsanjani, who was barred from running. Like Rafsanjani, Rouhani is a moderate – centrist – conservative who has often been described as a reformist. Before the Guardian Council approved him and during the campaign, Rouhani publicly said that Mousavi and Karroubi, the leaders of the 2009 Green Movement, should be released from house arrest. He also criticized the methods of the Basij/Revolutionary Guards and called for more civil rights.

Khamenei must at least tolerate Rouhani since the Guardian Council allowed him to run. However, on June 10, two Iranian news agencies (Fars, which is controlled by the Revolutionary Guards, and Mehr) suggested that Rouhani would be disqualified prior to the election.

Rouhani started the campaign as a little-known candidate in the single digits, but got a huge wave of momentum in the final stretch. He received Rafsanjani’s support, and, on June 11, reformist candidate Mohammad Reza Aref dropped out and endorsed him. Aref, who was former President Mohammad Khatami’s candidate, had been pressured to drop out and coalesce the reformist  vote behind the moderate Rouhani by Khatami himself. Mohammad Reza Aref had served as Khatami’s First Vice President between 2001 and 2005.

Results and aftermath

Turnout was 72.7%, down from 85% in 2009 – but there are claims that turnout was inflated in 2009 because of vote rigging.

Hassan Rouhani (moderate/reformist) 50.71%
Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf (Principlist conservative) 16.55%
Saeed Jalili (hardline conservative) 11.35%
Mohsen Rezaee (independent conservative) 10.58%
Ali-Akbar Velayati (Principlist conservative) 6.18%
Mohammad Gharazi (independent/moderate) 1.21%

Iranian elections often end in surprises. In 1997, Khatami – the dark horse reformist – defeated the conservative ‘favourite’ with nearly 70% of the vote. In 2005, Ahmadinejad – the populist conservative who had not been expected to win – defeated conservative rivals in the first round and went on to win three-fifths of the vote in a runoff against a former President. This election was no different. The ‘favourites’ and ‘frontrunners’ – basically Jalili and Ghalibaf – did poorly, with only 16.6% and 11.4% respectively. The winner was somebody which few people had noticed in the first days of the campaign, and whose momentum came very late in the campaign. The winner was also somebody quite far removed from the conservatism which has been ascendant in Iranian politics since 2005.

Rouhani’s success was not entirely unexpected, because the most reliable pollster had shown him surging in the final days – first surpassing Ghalibaf on 8-11 June and then widening his advantage in their final, 9-12 June poll. He went from 14% and fourth place (behind Ghalibaf, whose support had been dropping from nearly 40% to the mid-20s, Jalili and Rezaee) on 7-11 June to 32% on 9-12 June. What was unexpected, however, was that he won a huge landslide – 51% by the first round! Most people had been expecting that, like in 2005, the first round would be exceptionally divided between the five fairly strong contenders and that the election would be decided on June 21 in a second round ballot. Few were certain who would qualify for the second round ballot, though in the final days it was probably a good bet to say that it would oppose Rouhani and Ghalibaf. Those harbouring suspicions about Iran’s electoral process (especially after 2009) felt that Rouhani was too moderate and close to the shunned reformists to be “allowed” to win by the Supreme Leader and the powers that be.

Overly high expectations? (source: Der Standard, Austria)

Even though Rouhani’s more conservative past and his past proximity to Khamenei (and Rafsanjani) might have potentially made it harder for him to rally reformist votes, his victory was likely built on a massive outpouring of reformist and moderate support for his candidacy. The reformists, including actors of the 2009 Green Movement – well, those which aren’t rotting in jail – coalesced around his candidacy, with little second thoughts, after their leaders – Khatami, Aref and Rafsanjani (to a lesser extent) – endorsed Rouhani. The result is that Rouhani’s grassroots supporters are probably far more radical than he is. He is more centrist than reformist and goes out of his way to emphasize his ‘moderation’. However, in large urban rallies celebrating his victory, his supporters chanted Mir-Hossein Mousavi’s name and celebrated the loathed Ahmadinejad’s removal from office.

The high turnout serves as proof of Rouhani’s ability to rally the reformist voters. A day before the vote, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei called on all Iranians – even those who “do not support the Islamic system” – to vote. Khamenei and the Iranian leadership had a major interest in ensuring that turnout was very high, which they wished to use as proof that their regime still enjoys popular legitimacy and to counter western claims that the regime is crumbling against popular dissatisfaction.

In sharp contrast with the bloodshed and mass protests which followed Ahmadinejad’s contested 2009 reelections, the results of this election have been met with calm on both sides. All the major actors – the conservative candidates, Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guards – all issued messages of goodwill congratulating Rouhani and pledging to work with him. The young Iranian students and reformist activists who took the streets did so to celebrate Rouhani’s victory and Ahmadinejad’s upcoming departure. In this sense, the election is a blessing for Khamenei and the high echelons of the Islamic Republic, who can now claim renewed legitimacy after the 2009 clusterfark.

Results by province have not been released yet, although Wikipedia seems to be in the process of creating (a fairly unclear and messy) map of the results and providing results by province. With such a huge margin, Rouhani was likely victorious in most of the country – the urban centres which are often seen as reformist bastions but also the conservative small towns and interior where Ahmadinejad triumphed in 2005 and 2009. It appears as if Rezaee might have won his native Khuzestan province, and perhaps he did well in other provinces with large ethnic minorities – such as Kurdistan, Kermanshah or Loristan. The reformist movement has usually been fairly strong in provinces such as these, the Azeri provinces or Sistan and Baluchestan, with large non-Persian ethnic minorities or Sunni Muslim minorities (in Khorasan, Kurdistan and West Azerbaijan).

Iran’s ethnic and religious diversity – an often underestimated factor (source: Wikipedia)

Rouhani’s wide victory reflects deep-seated popular dissatisfaction with outgoing President Ahmadinejad, who leaves office as a controversial and unpopular President turned into a lame duck because of his feud with Khamenei. His victory owes a lot to domestic conditions – an economic recession, high inflation, failed economic policies, the economic problems caused by foreign sanctions and high unemployment. Although Iranian conservatives downplay it, there is at least a partial link between international sanctions, bred by Iran’s stance on its nuclear program, and the country’s economic troubles. Many voters likely made that link as well.

Among the other candidates, Jalili was likely perceived as too hardline and uncompromising on the nuclear issue and inexperienced on other issues. Velayati was never a top contender, being far too technocratic for that. Rezaee was never a very high-profile contender either. Ghalibaf was a strong candidate on paper, given his conservative anti-Ahmadinejad credentials and his fairly good record as mayor of Tehran, so I’m not so sure why his support tanked like it did. Was he seen as too conservative? Was he hurt by his ‘militaristic’ past and incessantly boasting about how he mowed down ‘subversives’ thrice?

We should always keep in mind that the President of Iran is not the highest source of authority in Iranian politics – the real powers, especially on touchy topics such as foreign policy and nuclear issues – are still in the hands of the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, who is clearly far more conservative and ‘hawkish’ than his President-elect is. Nevertheless, the Iranian President does have some relevance in the game and some degree of influence. Rouhani’s victory should not be cynically dismissed as an irrelevant realpolitik move by Khamenei. Rouhani won’t change the world and he might not be what he is expected to be.

Yet, he will have some leverage and could, at the very least, tone down the hardline rhetoric just a bit and make Tehran more amenable to compromise than it was under Ahmadinejad’s presidency. He has stressed moderation, diplomacy, pragmatism and engagement with the US and its partners. He has a record as a real ‘negotiator’ rather than an uncompromising representative (like Jalili was), and he earned the sobriquet of the “diplomatic sheikh” during his two-year stint as Iran’s nuclear go-to guy.

Basically all Iranian politicians – conservatives and reformists alike – support the country’s nuclear program and nobody is going to dismantle it and throw their hands up. A vast majority of Iranians see the nuclear program (and the technological/scientific advances and prestige it gives) as a source of national pride and a repudiation of foreign mingling (which has been going on for hundreds of years). Rouhani says he wants a peaceful nuclear program, though the eternal question is how far he or any other Iranian politician is going to take the program to inch towards an actual weapon. Rouhani, as aforementioned, supports engagement and constructive dialogue/compromise with the west.

However, in a 2004 speech, while saying that Iran needs to engage the west through diplomatic channels, he noted that Iran’s strategy of slow-playing the west with negotiations/compromises has allowed the country to continue developing its nuclear program covertly. He says that, while nuclear negotiator, his top concern was to stall and drag out talks while Iranian scientists pushed nuclear technology forward behind closed doors. Therefore, Rouhani should not be seen as somebody who is willing to sacrifice strategic aspects of Iran’s cherished but controversial nuclear program. He strongly supports the (civilian) nuclear program, and wants to push it to its conclusion which will force the west to ‘deal with it’ – just like they were forced to ‘deal with it’ when Pakistan got the bomb in 1998. He does have a genuine interest, or so it seems, in improving diplomatic ties with the west. But not at the cost of “surrendering”.

Rouhani’s ‘reformist’ credentials – if any – have not yet been proven. He promised to release Mousavi and Karroubi from house arrest and would also like to release political prisoners from 2009, but he has warned that such things will require time and patience – meaning that he needs to convince Khamenei that it’s a good idea. Rouhani, like almost all reformists, remains an “insider” with a long political career working inside the Islamic Republic’s state apparatus. That means that there will not – there cannot – be overnight transformations, and any reforms will be moderate and gradual. He needs to maneuver with a state apparatus which is otherwise dominated by conservative allies of the Supreme Leader. The Majles is dominated by principlist conservatives, presided by Ali Larijani. The Guardian Council, the courts and most importantly the Revolutionary Guards are ultraconservative bulwarks controlled by the Supreme Leader. We should remember how these institutions and the regime’s ideological paramilitaries successfully thwarted Khatami’s reformist agenda and destroyed the reformist wave after 2003-2004.

It is worth pointing out that the top concern in this election was the economy, not foreign policy (although, again, in Iran, both are linked). Rouhani has said that his priorities will be fixing the economy, reducing unemployment and tackling high inflation.

Cynical voices suspicious of Iran’s very controlled and curtailed illiberal democracy believe that Rouhani was handpicked by the Supreme Leader as a ‘moderate’ which would give him domestic legitimacy and reduce tensions with the west with the least coast to Iran. It could certainly be a calculated effort by Khamenei et al to give the outward appearance of moderation and reform and regain domestic and international legitimacy after the 2009 crisis. Khamenei felt increasingly threatened and fragilized by the 2009 protests, which was the first time that popular anger was directed not only at his lackeys and hapless Presidents but at him directly. In the past, he had a teflonic ability to deflect unpopularity and criticism by placing the blame on unpopular decisions and economic troubles on others – like the President. The more radical elements of the 2009 Green Movement directly targeted him and events like Ayatollah Montazeri’s funeral in 2009 became opportunities for public denunciations of the regime’s ruling elite. One might also assume that Khamenei is at least a little concerned by the international isolation of his country and the economic impact it has had. He is clearly a hardline conservative on nuclear matters, but he is not suicidal. He wants to push the nuclear program forward while reducing tensions with the west. Rouhani provides him with a tool to do just that. Finally, Rouhani is a religious cleric – unlike the other candidates and the outgoing President. As such, he won’t be like Ahmadinejad/Mashaei and lead a crusade against religious involvement in politics.

Iran’s top echelons are fine strategists, and we should not put such a calculated manipulation of the election beyond them. But it is perhaps overly cynical to see Rouhani as Khamenei’s tools. Plenty of other conservative candidates would have been just as useful to further Khamenei’s objectives – sure, Jalili was a bit too radical and Ghalibaf might have been too independent and turned into Ahmadinejad 2.0, but I think it’s pretty clear that Rouhani was not Khamenei’s favourite (unless Khamenei is even more Machiavellian than previously assumed).

Basically put, Khamenei had nothing to lose with Rouhani’s victory and he will probably be able to use it to his advantage, but it’s unclear whether he really had something big to gain from it.

Unless we subscribe to the cynic view of the matter in which the election was entirely manipulated by Tehran’s high echelons for self-interested purposes, Iran’s presidential election is quite significant. It is unwise to see it as a victory for reformism and overnight transformations, or to view it as a sign that Iran will suddenly back down on the contentious nuclear issue and hand victory to the west. It is more of a sign that President Ahmadinejad leaves office with a terrible record of civil rights abuses, unprecedented isolation and crippling sanctions, an economy in shambles and a feud with Khamenei which made his entire second term quasi-irrelevant. Out of these conditions, a ‘moderate’ like Rouhani who promised to fix the economy, democratize things a tiny bit and patch up diplomatic ties with the west while still moving forward on the nuclear dossier was able to win a landslide victory; appealing to 2009 Green Movement activists, reformists, moderate conservatives and many depoliticized Iranians eager for a change and way out of the impasse which Ahmadinejad has led them into since 2005.