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Iran’s Electoral Crossroads: Voter Dissent and the Shift Toward a Conservative Future

Elections for the 12th term of the Iranian Parliament and the sixth term of the Assembly of Experts for Leadership took place on March 1. 25 million citizens of the Islamic Republic participated in this election—equivalent to 41 percent of eligible voters. Turnout was slightly (1.5 percent) lower than the previous elections in February 2020. Analysis of the election points to three outcomes that relate directly to the legitimacy of the regime, the behavior of the voters, and the future of Iran’s political sphere.

Wither the Regime?

The March 1 election cycle was the first to take place after the 2022 Mahsa Amini protests, during which more than 500 people were killed by the regime. The dire economic situation across the country compounded a general sense that the government threatened the people’s freedoms through mandatory hijab bills and restricted internet access. It was feared that this sense of repression would cause Iranians to sit out the 2024 election cycle out of general disillusionment. However, the strong showing indicated that although the Iranian regime exhibits many weaknesses, it is under no threat of imminent collapse.

Political scientist Jack A. Goldstone has identified five conditions necessary for a revolution to succeed: “national economic or fiscal strain, alienation and opposition among the elites, widespread popular anger at injustice, a persuasive shared narrative of resistance, and favorable international relations.” Despite the clear framework Goldstone provides for a successful revolution, the current situation in Iran diverges significantly due to several mitigating factors.

First, though the regime faces economic pressure, U.S. President Joe Biden’s easing of sanctions has allowed the regime to trade abroad and generate some hydrocarbon revenues. Second, a large group of ruling elites have remained loyal to the regime for numerous reasons, including financial gain and out of fear for their own lives should the regime collapse. Third, there is widespread outrage at injustice in Iran, but it does not necessarily unify the public against the elites in Tehran. Fourth, the opposition lacks an alternative vision for a post-Islamic Republic Iran capable of bringing the public together in a united struggle. Finally, international conditions are favorable to the regime, including support from China and Russia.

Despite all the damage done to the legitimacy of the regime, these factors suggest that the Islamic Republic maintains a strong position among its supporters, who consider supporting the Islamic Revolution as supporting Islam and abandoning it as a sign of irreligion and weak faith. Absent a unified opposition that overcomes these obstacles, the elites in Tehran have little reason to fear the collapse of the status quo.

An Election Unlike Any Other

Accepting that the government is far from falling does not suggest that the majority of people support it or cannot challenge its legitimacy. Though the regime may point to only a small decrease in voter participation, the recent elections showed that about 60 percent of the people refused to head to the polls. The number of invalid votes in this election registered 8 percent, a reminder of the high number of invalid votes of 13 percent in the previous elections—the presidential election in June 2021—which was the highest number of votes after those for the leading candidate.

The turnout was especially low in some of Iran’s largest cities. The results of a state TV poll held a month before the election showed that 52% of the respondents did not even know when the elections would take place. The disqualification of a large group of candidates by the Guardian Council and the cold electoral climate caused the Iran Reform Front to declare the elections of this period “meaningless, non-competitive, unfair, and ineffective,” and to refuse to present a list of candidates in Tehran. Even former politicians have grown disillusioned. “People have lost faith in the efficiency of the parliament. They say, what is [its] function? [Which of the regime’s officials] listen to the representatives?” Gholamali Jafarzadeh, a member of parliament for several terms, said in an interview with the Khabaronline news agency.

The second-most important trend observed in voters’ behavior was the spread of “non-list” voting. During the most recent elections, especially in Tehran, voters tended to vote for independents or a group of people in various lists. The voters’ disillusionment with the status quo and their apparent powerlessness to change it, the coldness of the election atmosphere, and the lack of trust in the effectiveness and efficiency of the parliament, all contributed to political newcomers—consisting of radicals, conservatives, and independents—winning parliamentary seats. This behavior caused the elections in 14 provinces to go to a runoff. In Tehran, about half of the seats were determined by runoffs.

Non-list voting tends to create a parliament consisting of candidates approved by the Guardian Council, who are in turn more likely to support government policies. Thus, because the main reformist and critical factions boycotted the vote, what occurred in Iran cannot be called a true national election. Indeed, the absence of major political forces fractured the traditional field of candidates, many of whom were replaced by non-political independents and local influencers. This behavior was predictable. In countries gripped by populist fervor and during dire economic situations, candidates make hot economic promises. The most recent Iranian elections did not follow this trend, however. Mohammadreza Yousefi, the professor of Qom Seminary, put this down to the fact that most candidates were aware of the lack of public participation in the elections and the high number of invalid votes. As a result, Yousefi said, “candidates target specific groups, rather than all people.” Indeed, non-list voting causes the election to become a social and ethnic matter, rather than a traditional political contest. Seyyed Hossein Marashi, Secretary General of Executives of Construction Party, in an interview with the newspaper Sazendagi, believes that the regime tried to adopt a new strategy in this election.

Rather than conduct a traditional campaign, elites aligned with the regime tried to replace traditional political divides with social platforms, which are largely based on the activities of ethnic groups and local groups. The regime had long recognized that widespread participation among urbanites was unlikely. So it tried to take the election contests to small towns that harbor ethnic and tribal prejudices. With this, the political competition turned into a social competition between different ethnic groups and regions, which the regime hoped, with some prescience, would compensate for lower turnout in the big cities.

Aftermath

The conduct of the election and its results will hamper the next parliament’s ability to achieve political goals, as representatives will pursue the ethnic and cultural demands specific to their region. With this, local rivalries will take the place of ordinary politics, and instead of an active parliament that acts in the interest of the country, ethnic conflicts will prevail.

The consequences of the most recent elections will also reverberate beyond Iran’s borders. The formation of a parliament consisting of radical elements that will push the future of the Iranian political sphere towards fundamentalism and conservatism in foreign policy, as well. Though the election’s exact effects remain uncertain, it is undoubtedly clear that the more radical factions have gained significant ground on the traditional and moderate fundamentalists.

In Tehran, the top three candidates are members of the “Front of Islamic Revolution Stability.” This party believes in religious authority and revolutionary and radical reforms. Fourth place in Tehran fell to Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf, the current Speaker of the parliament and a moderate conservative. He had introduced a list of similar moderate candidates under the “Coalition Council of Revolutionary Forces,” but received few votes. The “Voice of the Nation” list attributed to Ali Motahari, who is also moderate, received little support. Instead, the “Morning of Iran” list attributed to Ali Akbar Raefipour, one of the traditional and radical religious-social speakers, won the most votes in Tehran. This method promises the formation of a parliament composed of extremists.

The most recent parliamentary elections took place amid serious speculation about the Iranian people’s convictions about participating in such an unfree electoral process, and the results confirm those doubts. In the end, voters sent a clear message to the regime: we oppose your authoritarian policies. Now it is up to the newly elected representatives and the government’s officials to heed the voice of the people.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.

Issue: Politics & Governance
Country: Iran

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Dr. Mohammad Salami holds a Ph.D. in International Relations. He is a specialist in Middle Eastern policy, particularly in Syria, Iran, Yemen, and the Persian Gulf region. His areas of expertise include politics and governance, security, and counterterrorism. He writes as an analyst and columnist in various media outlets. Follow him on Twitter: @moh_salami


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