Elections in the Islamic republic

Strong vote for a strong Iran?

In the run-up to Iran’s parliamentary elections on 21 February, state media was at full blast. Urging Iranians to take to the polls, state TV’s Channel 1 ran an election-day countdown, showing images of past elections and enthusiastic voters, regularly interrupted by music appealing to Iranians' sense of patriotism and nationalism. By Ali Fathollah-Nejad

To be sure, state media has long lost its appeal, largely because it is known as a regime mouthpiece. Many in Iran have turned to Western-based Persian TV channels, alternative websites, and social networks where information and political takes are more readily exchanged – many of which are critical of the regime.

That state media parrots the line from the leading authority of the country, the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, isn’t surprising of course: he appoints the head of the state broadcaster directly. This leads to the streamlined messaging that taking part in these elections is nothing less than a "national duty", most crucial at a time when Iran’s enemies are engaged in unprecedented conspiracies against it. Not least due to the high level of public discontent, they add that voting is a key avenue for expressing the citizenry’s most basic right to help shape the direction of their nation.

In reality, though, the sustained campaign urging people to vote – more virulent than for previous elections – comes against the backdrop of a widely expected lower-than-usual voter turnout.

Candidate disqualifications artificially narrow the field

In this vein, in a February 18 speech Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei said that the "prestige" of the Islamic system would depend on the upcoming elections. He added ominously: "If we do our job properly, the elections will be a harbinger of change." In short, the forthcoming elections would be nothing less than a "divine test", he added.

Parliamentary candidate Mohammed Rostami on the campaign trail, poster in hand (photo: Anja Koch)
One of the 'fortunate' few: in the run-up to February's election "the Guardian Council has disqualified scores of candidates. It eliminated around half of the 15,000 who filed to run for office, including a large majority of current MPs, almost all of them from the reformist camp," writes Fathollah-Nejad

He didn’t hide his political sympathies: people should vote for candidates committed to the Islamic Revolution, and not for those, as he warned, who in the past became "lackeys" of America — probably a reference to a few members of parliament (MPs) during the reformist Khatami administration who had joined the 2009 Green Movement, whom Khamenei and his ilk consider traitors.

In fact, even more so than in the past, the Guardian Council – an ultraconservative body in charge of vetting candidates for elections – has disqualified scores of candidates. It eliminated around half of the 15,000 who filed to run for office, including a large majority of current MPs, almost all of them from the reformist camp. Criticising these exclusions, President Hassan Rouhani – a centrist who has been backed by the reformist camp – said that voters were thus being robbed of any choice. The choice offered so far to Iranians during parliamentary and presidential elections has been one between a lesser (the so-called moderates) and a greater evil (the hardliners).

The "choice" exists primarily in order to absorb public pressure. The parliament and the presidency are the Islamic Republic’s only semi-republican institutions within a complex architecture of bodies that are largely in the tight grip of the ultraconservatives, at the hub of which stands the Supreme Leader. The dismissal of that long-time choice between the lesser and greater evil reflects hardliners' hubris in light of their moderate domestic opponents’ weakness, as well as its more brazen effort to monopolise power, which they hope to complete with next year’s presidential elections (when Rouhani’s maximum two terms will end).

The parliament’s (ir)relevance

Although the parliament is, compared to other institutions, perhaps the least powerful, it houses more diverse viewpoints and at times controversial debates. For instance, it was in the parliament where harsh criticism of the security forces’ unprecedented lethal crackdown against a nationwide revolt last November was voiced.

The MP from the south-western city of Mahshahr, which saw the most atrocious violence against protesters, compared the Islamic Republic to the Shah regime, before being physically pushed away by hard-line colleagues. In a fiery speech, a reformist female MP from Tehran, whose satellite cities were major hotbeds of revolt, called the Islamic Republic tyrannical. In other words, with the candidate disqualifications, the hardliners signalled that they are willing to stifle the last remnant of space for dissent within the country’s institutions.

However, as with the presidency, parliament remains extremely weak, with political and economic power instead centred on the theocratic institutions. Amidst this stark imbalance of power, the run-up to this month’s parliamentary vote (and next year’s presidential one) in many cases involved much ado, but is likely to produce little to nothing by way of change.

Ali Fathollah-Nejad

© Brookings Institution 2020

Ali Fathollah-Nejad is a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center. This article was originally published on brookings.edu

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