Iran’s parliamentary elections occur amid unprecedented pressures

And the hardliners are moving toward monopolizing power

A woman walks past parliamentary election campaign posters at the end of the parliamentary election day in Tehran, Iran February 20, 2020. WANA (West Asia News Agency)/Nazanin Tabatabaee via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY.

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Ahead of Iran’s February 21 parliamentary elections, state media is at full blast. To urge Iranians to take to the polls this Friday, state TV’s Channel 1 (Shabakeh 1) is running an election-day countdown, showing images of past elections and enthusiastic voters, and inviting Iranian actors and directors to say on screen that they intend to vote. All of this is regularly interrupted by music appealing to Iranians’ sense of patriotism and nationalism. A key motto displayed is “strong vote, a strong Iran.” (entekhâb-e qavi, Irân-e qavi).

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, isn’t surprising of course: He directly appoints the head of the state broadcaster. 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” (âb-e rou) 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” (tahavolât-âvar). In short, the forthcoming elections would be nothing less than a “divine test,” he added.

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” (nokar) 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. Criticizing these exclusions, President Hassan Rouhani — a centrist who has been backed by the reformist camp — has said that voters were thus being robbed of any choice.

The choice that has so far been offered to Iranians during parliamentary and presidential elections has been one between a lesser evil (the so-called moderates) and larger 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 whose power center stands the supreme leader. The dismissal of that long-time choice between the lesser and larger evil reflects hardliners’ hubris in light of their moderate domestic opponents’ weakness, as well as its more brazen effort to monopolize 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 were voiced. The MP from the southwestern 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 hardline 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 signaled 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 centered around 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 involves much ado, but produces little to nothing by way of changes. And more recently, the parliament’s role was even further undermined. A crucial case in point is the decision by the Supreme Economic Council — a newly formed body that had no basis in the constitution, and is composed of the three heads of the branches of government — to triple fuel prices last year, kicking off the November rebellion. Parliament was sidelined, where there was skepticism toward such a price hike.

Internal and external pressures

Khamenei’s point in his pre-election speech that the elections come at an extremely critical time is not far-fetched. Indeed, these elections take place against the backdrop of unprecedented internal and external pressures to the Islamic Republic, accumulating over last two years. This fact is not lost on the people in the echelons of power in Iran — nor among a largely disgruntled public.

Two particular events in recent months have undermined the legitimacy of and people’s confidence in the regime.

First, this week’s parliamentary elections come just three months after the momentous November protests — the most widespread anti-regime demonstrations in the history of the Islamic Republic, which reportedly led to the killing of about 1,500 protesters (though Iran’s authorities have refused to name a number). The demonstrations sent shock waves throughout society, the economy, and Iran’s political sphere. Months later, the questions around how many protesters were killed remains on Iranians’ minds: Just a few days ago, Rouhani was asked at a press conference, and he claimed that the responsibility to make the number public would lie with another governmental body, while adding — without evidence — that the number killed is far below the one circulating in some media.

Second, they come a month and a half after the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps admitted — belatedly — that it accidentally shot down a civilian airliner, killing all 176 mostly Iranian passengers. The tragic mistake undermined the regime’s efforts to use the funerals of commander Qassem Soleimani to create nationalistic momentum toward regime stabilization — instead, the plane crash kicked off anti-regime protests by thousands. They were fueled by the impression that the rulers cared little about the lives of their own citizens, while taking great caution in its reprisals against the U.S. to ensure that not a single American soldier was killed. Thus, the current social mood in Iran can be described as a mixture of sustained anger toward the regime and a feeling of help- and hopelessness.

Election-related grafitti in Iran.
Street graffiti in Iran ahead of the parliamentary elections. Credit:

These two events have also strengthened the appeal of campaigns calling to boycott the elections. Under the hashtags of ray bi ray (“not voting”) and angosht dar khoun (“voting finger in blood”), street graffiti shows, for instance, votes cast in a ballot box becoming bullets for guns killing people. The imagery recalls the bloody “killing spree,” in Amnesty International’s words, that defined the state’s response to the November protests.

Meanwhile, the economic situation is at an all-time low, with U.S. sanctions leading to the country’s gross domestic product to contract by about 9%, which exacerbates the already dire socio-economic situation. Politically, the hardline camp feels emboldened because of the moderate camp’s weakness, due to the latter’s own shortcomings as well as the failed economic dividends from an ailing Iran nuclear agreement largely blamed on the U.S. withdrawal. And both wings of the elite — reformists and conservatives — remain hotly contested by large sections of the population.

Between the parliamentary and the presidential elections, it remains to be seen whether the reformists could turn the disqualification of their candidates into an opportunity to repair their much tarnished popular image. The conservative camp has tried to make up for its decreasing public appeal by prompting a younger generation to run for parliamentary seats. In his recent speech, Khamenei said that in the new parliament, there should be a balance between the younger and older generations, both unequivocally committed to the revolution.

What to watch

The regime needs high voter turnout this week, during this time of crisis: It could portray such turnout as a show of support from the people. But that is unlikely, due to extreme voter disillusionment and the absence of any meaningful choice. The chance that the regime will manipulate the vote count is higher than in past elections.

After these elections, the political development to watch will be how the hardline camp is apportioned and divided, where infighting has become quite intense. This will be a barometer for the political future of the system, not only in terms of Rouhani’s successor as president but also that of the 80-year old Supreme Leader Khamenei.