On 21 February, Iran held critical elections for its 290-seat Islamic Consultative Assembly and simultaneously partial elections for its 88-member Assembly of Experts elected in 2016 for an eight-year term, to replace seats in the provinces of Tehran, Razavi Khorasan, North Khorasan, Fars and Qom vacated by death.
The parliamentary elections, an important gauge of internal political balances, followed soon after a number of highly controversial political and economic decisions, including price hikes on fuel that triggered widespread and brutally repressed protests. The elections also came on the heels of Washington’s targeted assassination of Major General Qassem Suleimani, commander of the Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force and the Iranian regime’s panicky and inept handling of its army’s accidental downing of a Ukrainian passenger flight, killing all on board. These and other developments would inform not just who Iranians would vote for, but whether they would vote at all.
Against this backdrop, it was perhaps predictable that conservatives would regain a parliamentary majority, though perhaps not by such a landslide. Some 7,148 candidates contested these elections. According to official figures announced for 275 of the assembly’s 290 seats, conservatives won 223 seats compared to only 16 for reformists and 36 for independents. Reruns for the remaining 15 seats will be held 18 April.
Other factors contributed to the landslide. Prime among them was that the Guardian Council, which is in charge vetting candidates, rejected 6,850 nominees, the majority of whom were reformists or moderates. It also barred a third of the representatives in the outgoing parliament from running again. Ninety serving members of parliament affiliated with the reformist camp were disqualified due to ostensible doubts concerning their religious commitment and dedication to the national political system. Due to the mass exclusion of reformists and moderates, few were left to contest the hardliners.
The decision on the part of many reformists to boycott the polls in response to this naturally bolstered the hardliners’ prospects. Nevertheless, there were quite a few high-profile boycotters, such as Parvana Salahshuri, an MP from Tehran who protested the repression of the November protests among other government ills; Ali Larijani, current speaker of parliament and former chief nuclear negotiator and Mohamed Reza Aref, a former minister and first vice-president who is close to incumbent President Hassan Rouhani.
In addition, the Coordinating Council of the Reformist Front, an umbrella organisation for reformist parties, announced that it would not field an electoral list for Tehran in protest against the Guardian Council’s exclusion of the majority of its candidates, although it stated that it would respect the desire of its member parties to field candidates independently. The candidates from the Executives of Construction Party and the Alliance for Iran, who chose to run independently of the Reformist Council, failed to obtain seats in the Tehran constituency.
Many reformists maintain that parliament had lost most of its effective powers and jurisdictions during recent years because of the rise of unelected parallel committees and bodies designed to circumvent the legislature. A notable instance is the Supreme Council for Economic Coordination. It was this body, headed by the president, the speaker of parliament and the chief justice, that took the decision to raise fuel prices without consulting parliament, sparking widespread economic protests in November.
Poor voter turnout best expressed the general public mood in Iran where disgruntlement runs high due to the economic straits precipitated by US sanctions, the recent fuel price hikes and other factors. Despite the Supreme Leader’s exhortations to vote, voter turnout stood at only 42.6 per cent according to the Iranian Interior Ministry. Only 24 million of the country’s 58 million registered voters reported to the polls. In Tehran, turnout was barely 25 per cent, or only 841,000 of the 9,600,000 eligible voters in the capital. This is the lowest rate of turnout since the Iranian Revolution in 1979. In previous rounds, turnout ranged between 51.21 and 71.1 per cent. Never before had it fallen below 50 per cent. The minister of interior, in a press conference, groped for excuses: bad weather, coronavirus, the Ukrainian airplane crash, etc.
The unprecedented voter apathy was not only due to frustration at the elimination of choices due to the disqualification of thousands of reformists and moderates, but also due to widespread disappointment at the performance of moderates and conservatives while in power. This applies especially to President Rouhani, who has failed to deliver on his electoral promises during his one and a half terms so far. Analysts believe that conservatives capitalised on this during the legislative elections as part of a strategy to regain the presidency and senior posts in other key government bodies.
The results of the polls also show a significant gain for the Revolutionary Guard Corps (RGC) in parliament. At least 11 RGC officers running in conservative/fundamentalist lists have won seats, putting the RGC in a position to play an important role in shaping legislation and policy. Perhaps the most salient figure in this regard is former Mayor of Tehran Mohamed Bagher Ghalibaf, a former presidential candidate who has also served as RGC air force commander and chief of police. Analysts have tipped him as a likely candidate to succeed Larijani as speaker of parliament.
The landslide victory of conservatives and hardliners will put the Rouhani government under enormous pressure during the remainder of his term, especially with regard to foreign policy. Analysts anticipate a more combative posture and a greater tendency to brinksmanship against the US, in particular, while Tehran ups the pressure on the European troika to meet its obligations under the 2015 nuclear accord.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 27 February, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly