Iranian hardliners swept the majority of seats in last Friday’s parliamentary elections, building a strong coalition that paves the way for more conservative lawmaking and can further sideline the moderates in next year’s presidential election. Despite a historically low turnout, the conservatives’ win was propelled by the elimination of reformist and moderate candidates from the race, who had won the majority of seats in the previous parliamentary elections. This flip could reflect the extent to which many Iranians were disinclined to participate in what they perceived to be pre-engineered elections.
This apathy justifiably comes from the fact that the powerful Guardian Council, controlled by hardliners, had disqualified thousands of reformist candidates across the country. This left the race wide-open for hardliners to compete among themselves with no serious rivals.
Hardliners took all thirty seats representing the city of Tehran, the capital of the country and the center of its political direction. This marked a one-hundred percent reversal of a region in which reformists had previously held every seat. As one prominent reformist in Tehran explained, it was as if the top thirty candidates had been eliminated and only the second thirty candidates were allowed to compete and win.
Official numbers show the rate of voter participation at around 42% across the country and around 20% in Tehran, a numbers observers claimed as the lowest turnout rate in the history of the Islamic Republic since 1979. Some opposition groups claim that the official numbers cannot be trusted and that the actual rate may be even lower than announced.
In Tehran and other large cities where voting (usually along party lines) is seen as a more political act, participation was very low, sending a strong message from the urban electorate to the establishment. Urban middle-class voters, who are the base of the moderate and reformist camps, seem to have lost hope in bringing change through a process in which the outcome appeared to have been decided weeks before voting even began.
Hooman, a young engineer in Tehran who has supported reformists and moderates in previous elections, told me he did not vote this time, “because they had left nobody for me to vote for.” He told me he voted for a few candidates in the previous parliamentary elections including Ali Motahari, an incumbent parliamentarian. Motahari has been an outspoken member against hardliners and their policies, and has not been shy about criticizing top officials, including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The Guardian Council disqualified Motahari from running this cycle and eliminated him from the ballot.
Unlike Tehran and other large cities where voter turnout is an indication of the country’s national politics and overall direction, smaller cities and rural areas tell a completely different story. Many voters in these areas do not vote based on party lines, national politics, or foreign policy. They do not care as much about their candidates being described as ‘hardliner’ or ‘moderate.’ Voters in these areas care more about local issues that affect their daily lives in their immediate vicinities, such as, schools, bridges, roads, local investments, and provincial and city budgets, etc. Many of these voters have consistently voted for individuals regardless of their leanings toward any major political orientation. For that reason, some candidates in these smaller or more rural provinces do not even identify themselves with parties.
In recent years the Iranian parliament has lost its significance and become less able to impact the direction of the country’s national politics and foreign policy. A recent hike in fuel prices last November, (which was announced overnight by the administration), was decided without the direct knowledge of the parliament. Many lawmakers criticized the establishment for keeping them in the dark on such a crucial national decision. This prompted some current members of parliament to announce that they would leave the parliament, refusing to even register to run in this past Friday’s election.
Analysts and reformist politicians believe that hardliners have consolidated power in the parliament in order to pass a conservative set of laws and potentially make changes to the Iranian constitution. One of the main changes that has been discussed in recent years, is to transition from a presidential system to a parliamentary one, where a prime minister replaces the current role of president.
Reza, a senior member of a prominent reformist party in Iran, told me that reformists could not play an active role in Friday’s election because there were no reformist candidates for them to endorse, especially in places like Tehran and other major cities. Still, he added that reformists continue to believe in political participation and will now start planning for next year’s presidential election.
President Trump’s hawkish policies towards Iran and his campaign of maximum pressure have played a key role in the rise of hardliners in Tehran. Since he exited the nuclear deal in May 2017 and re-imposed economic sanctions on Iran, moderates have been weakened in the country, losing the argument that direct engagement with the U.S. benefits Iran. Hardliners in the parliament have continuously put pressure on the moderate and pro-engagement camp, and will now be able to increase those efforts with a strong majority.
While the Trump administration’s tough policy on Iran has helped strengthen the hardliners and weakened calls from moderates to negotiate with the west, Iran’s multiple domestic crises have played a key role in the populace’s economic, political and social grievances. The brutal crackdown on last November’s nationwide anti-government protests in which hundreds of protesters were killed by security forces, followed by the accidental downing and the cover-up of the circumstances that led to the crash of Ukraine Airlines Flight 973 by an IRGC missile, were two recent episodes that outraged significant portions of Iranian society and led to a strong sense of mistrust in the government and disengagement from the political process.
If these crises are not properly addressed by the establishment and a sense of trust in the system is not restored, voter apathy could continue and play a key role in the 2021 presidential election. The result of this parliamentary election may not be completely predictive of the hardliners’ ongoing success, or a guarantee of victory in the upcoming presidential election. However, the new level of control over the electoral process exercised by hardliners throughout this recent election creates an increasingly uphill battle for reformists and moderates dealing with voter apathy.
Negar Mortazavi is an Iranian-American bilingual journalist and media analyst based in Washington. She has been covering Iran and the region for over a decade and is a frequent guest commentator at US and international outlets including NPR, MSNBC, BBC, Aljazeera, CGTN and i24News.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.