February 20, 2020

Iranian Parliamentary Election Preview

On February 21st, Iranians will vote in the country’s 11th Parliamentary elections and elect all 290 members for the country’s legislative body. The votes will be cast at a time of great uncertainty and turmoil in Iran, with Iran’s economy under intense sanctions pressure, Iranians still reeling from a brutal government crackdown that left hundreds dead in November, the nation moving to the edge of war following the U.S. assassination of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani and public outrage over the shooting down of a civilian airliner that the government tried to cover up amid heightened tensions in January. These mounting crises appear to have weakened the moderate administration of incumbent President Hassan Rouhani and further delegitimized the system as a whole. 

While all elections in the Islamic Republic are constricted by unelected institutions, they often present the Iranian people a limited range of options that can shift the direction of the authoritarian government in important ways. Amid the Trump administration’s maximum pressure campaign, the range of acceptable outcomes appears to have shrunk even further, with many moderate and reformist voices in the parliament being barred from running. While the Islamic Republic’s opaque characteristics make predictions difficult, many factors point toward a depressed voter turnout and constricted elections leading to a hardline victory.

Below are crucial points to keep in mind ahead of the elections this Friday: 

Trump Pressure Dashes Hopes for Gradual Reform

  • Since 2013, President Hassan Rouhani united moderates and reformists under a platform of external moderation leading to economic improvement and, eventually, internal moderation. This led to decisive electoral victories for Rouhani and his backers in the 2013 and 2017 presidential elections, as well as the 2016 parliamentary elections. 
  • Despite initial successes, the U.S. exit from the nuclear deal in 2018 has thrown the moderates’ agenda into peril, with little opportunity for new nuclear negotiations, a sanctions and corruption-plagued economy beleaguering ordinary Iranians and an increasingly securitized political environment in Iran. 

Unelected Institutions Rig the Game

  • 90 sitting members of parliament have been barred from running for reelection by the unelected Guardian Council, or more than a third of the incumbents who were seeking to run. More than 7,000 potential candidates were disqualified across the country.
  • The disqualifications include three-quarters of the moderate coalition and conservative legislators who have backed Rouhani, as well as six of fifteen women candidates seeking reelection.
  • The disqualifications were sharply criticized by Rouhani, who warned that it is impossible to run the country with a single party – conservatives – in power.

Low Turnout Expected

  • Moderates and reformists have traditionally relied on high voter turnout to overcome hurdles from unelected institutions. Unfortunately for them, many predict low turnout this election cycle.
  • In one survey, despite 93% of respondents in traditionally reformist-dominated Tehran saying they are unhappy with the current situation in the country, only 24% will participate in the upcoming elections. 
  • Other polls also indicate that there is widespread disillusionment among Iranian voters, particularly among supporters of moderate conservatives and reformists, many of whom are exhausted, frustrated, and increasingly hopeless the political and economic situation inside of Iran will improve.
  • Voter turnout in parliamentary elections has only fallen below the 60% threshold twice: in 2004, when many reformist voters stayed home amidst the repression of the reformist movement and a weakened reformist president, handing a sizeable majority of Parliament to conservatives forces; and in 2008, following the 2005 presidential election that brought ultra-hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to power. In both these cases, low turnout helped the conservatives maintain power culminating in the country’s international isolation, the suppression of the 2009 Green Movement, and exacerbation of the country’s rampant corruption.

Hardliners Invigorated

  • In contrast to the disarray of moderates, Iranian hardliners have been vindicated in their warnings that the West could not be trusted following the U.S. withdrawal from the nuclear deal and assassination of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani, leaving Rouhani as the scapegoat for a policy that was the consensus position in Iran’s political elite. 
  • Shortly after his defeat in 2017 Presidential elections, hardline cleric Ebrahim Raisi was elevated to head the powerful Iranian Judiciary, then launched a highly-publicized anti-corruption effort. Through this anti-corruption drive, which many argue is designed to sideline opposition politicians, hardline forces have manufactured a boost absent a recent electoral victory.

Jockeying Among Conservative Factions

  • The Council for the Coalition of the Forces of the Islamic Revolution (CCFII), led by former Tehran Mayor Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, has cobbled together smaller moderate conservative parties under one banner. Separately, the Islamic Revolution’s Endurance Front (IIEF) represents ultraconservatives inspired by Qom-based cleric Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi. The IIEF has developed its messaging around their loyalty to Khamenei and the ‘nezam,’ or political system. Many of their MP candidates are in strong opposition to all reformists and essentially all of Rouhani’s policies. 
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