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Iranian voters, left, arrive at a polling station to vote for their country's parliamentary and Experts Assembly elections as election staff receive them in Tehran, Iran, Friday, Feb. 26, 2016. Iranians were voting on Friday in parliamentary elections, the country's first since its landmark nuclear deal with world powers last summer. At the same time as parliamentary elections, Iranians are also voting for the Assembly of Experts, a clerical body empowered to choose or dismiss the country's supreme leader. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)

Iran’s Election Gatekeepers Keep Democracy Futile

Now that the maelstrom following the killing of General Qasem Soleimani appears to have subsided, attention regarding Iran has mostly shifted to the country’s upcoming parliamentary elections. The elections are notable for the fact that they are the first to take place since the U.S.’ withdrawal from the JCPOA and the subsequent months of increasing tensions. Observers are keen to know if the region’s repeated dalliances with the brink of war will have a noticeable impact on voters’ decisions. Still, despite this factor, it can be expected that domestic variables will likely play a bigger role in impacting the results. Paramount among the numerous domestic priorities of voters overshadowing the scheduled February 21st elections is the economic dilemma resulting from the re-imposition of U.S. sanctions. Second, is the backlash against the mass-disqualification of nearly 55% of the candidates. Finally, is the growing disenchantment within Iran against the government’s economic policies and apparent cover-up attempt in the aftermath of the shooting down of Ukrainian Airlines flight 752.

Since Iran’s most recent 2016 parliamentary election, the Islamic Republic has witnessed several instances of widespread protests initiated by Iranians of diverse economic and ideological backgrounds. Notably, this included Tehran’s Bazaaris, students, and ordinary Iranians in the suburbs and rural areas. Their grievances were mostly linked to the fiscal and economic policies of President Hassan Rouhani’s moderate cabinet. In addition, as evidenced by the protests’ chants and slogans, public anger directed at the country’s conservatives and hardliners has been growing. This is largely due to their perceived role in increasing regional and international isolation, thusly contributing to the country’s economic hardship. These festering grievances were only compounded following the accidental downing of Ukraine Airlines Flight 752, after which the hardliner-affiliated Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps tried to cover up the states’ culpability. Ahead of elections, it is possible that the past 18 months of increasing public mistrust toward both moderates and hardliners will lead to a low turnout at the ballot box.

Disqualification of Candidates:

Despite factors making this upcoming election unique, it remains similar to past Iranian elections due to the tight censorship exercised by the hardline Guardian Council over which candidates can contest the elections. In order to appear on the ballot, all candidates must be approved by the council, a vetting process that could end with a candidate’s electoral disqualification. Since 1979 the council has been controlled by a group of 12 (mostly hardline) clerics who have historically disqualified candidates that are critical of Tehran’s foreign and domestic policies. These upcoming elections have been no different, and the Council has proceeded to disqualify thousands of reformists and moderate candidates. In fact, this year’s disqualifications have been the most numerous since 1979, with 9,000 of 16,000 candidates being deemed ineligible.[1] The stark disqualifications even drew criticism from Iranian President Hasan Rouhani, who cautioned that the move would impact Iran’s democracy and introduce widespread doubts concerning the genuineness of elections.[2] These rare public criticisms from the President were followed by a series of tweets from the Spokesperson of the Guardian Council Abbas Ali Kadkhodaee, who denied that moderates and reformists were being targeted in the vetting process. One of his tweets even went so far as to imply that Rouhani’s criticisms were rooted in nepotism, likely referencing the disqualification of the President’s son-in-law Kambiz Mehdizada.[3]

Despite public criticisms of officials in the conservative and moderate camps, the increased limitations placed on the Iranian people’s options by the Guardian Council will inevitably widen the already growing gap between the Iranian regime and its citizenry. Even more dangerously, this will give the election the appearance of being intended to eliminate the moderate camp in the upcoming elections, leaving hardliners and conservatives as the only options. This argument is bolstered by the fact that of those disqualified, 90 were mostly incumbent reformists and moderates, including notable figures within the reformist bloc such as Shahindokht Molaverdi, former Vice President for Women and Family Affairs within the Rouhani Administration and Mahmoud Sadeghi another reformist who was known for being hostile and outspoken against the hardliners.[4] In 2018 Sadeghi accused the Guardian Council of corruption, which led the latter to press charges against the MP and disqualify him in 2020.[5] Mohammed Reza Tabesh, the nephew of former Reformist President Mohammad Khatami, was also disqualified after accusing the government of misleading the public regarding the circumstances preceding the crash of Flight 752, arguing that the government’s cover-up was more damaging than the incident itself.[6] Even with the mounting evidence of the Council’s systematic disqualification of reformists, Spokesman Kadkhodaee has rebuffed the accusations in several tweets, insisting that the disqualifications are based on candidates’ violations of the law.

Campaigning and Factions’ Agendas:

Despite popular dissatisfaction with both camps, candidates representing Iran’s various ideological lanes do not appear to be altering their pitches to expand their bases. The remaining reformists and moderates are determined to preserve the majority of seats by continuing to promise voters expansions in social freedom. Meanwhile, conservatives and hardliners will likely seek to gain control by pointing to perceived failures under the moderate government’s economic policies. This will be a continuation of the hardliners’ messages over the past two years, beginning with slow-death of the JCPOA, the impact of U.S. sanctions, and the failure of Europeans to circumvent sanctions.

While candidates’ campaigns have started on February 13, stakes are high for control of the parliament and will be determined in the provinces with the largest delegations. Tehran retains 30 seats, Esfahan 19, and Fars and Khuzestan each have 18. Since the capital has the highest representation, it is expected to witness the most contentious campaigns. After 2016 the reformists and moderates controlled each of Tehran’s 30 seats.[7] Overcoming this grip will be the main challenge of conservatives (led by Former Tehran Mayor Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf) if they ever hope to retake parliament.

In spite of the tremendous economic, security, and domestic challenges facing Iran, the outcome of the upcoming elections will likely not foreshadow the introduction of meaningful changes. The state and society will remain under the tight control of the theocracy of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and hardliner-controlled institutions like the Guardian Council controlling Iranians’ limited democracy. Rather than be a genuine exercise in democracy, the elections are merely a tool from the Islamic Republic to manufacture the perception that it retains popular support.



[1] Parisa Hafezi, “Factbox: Choices curtailed – Iran’s parliamentary election,” Reuters, February 17, 2020

[2] “Iran’s Rouhani sounds alarm for ‘democracy’ after candidates barred,” France24. January 27, 2020

[3] “Volatility challenges continuity as Iranians prepare for elections,” Gulf States News, January 23, 2020

[4] “With Reformers Sidelined, Iranian Elections Looking Like Hard-Liners Vs. Conservatives,” Radio Foda, January 26, 2020

[5] “Iran Conservatives Bent On Punishing Outspoken MP,” Radio Farda, February 17, 2020

[6] Somayeh Malekian, “Iranians anguished after military admits shooting down Ukrainian jet,” abc News, January 12, 2020

[7] Thomas Erdbrink, “Iranian President and Moderates Make Strong Gains in Elections,” The New York Times, February 29, 2016

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