On February 21, Iranians will head to the polls to choose members for the country’s 290-seat parliament. The vote could not come at a more sensitive time for Iran.
The country is still grappling with the chaotic fallout from the United States‘ assassination of top Iranian general Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad on January 3. The killing, which pushed the longtime foes to the precipice of an all-out-war, came as Washington tightened sanctions against Tehran as part of a years-long “maximum pressure” campaign that has crippled Iran‘s economy and driven down its oil exports. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’s (IRGC) actions to avenge Soleimani’s killing, however, only increased the turmoil in Iran.
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On January 8, the paramilitary force fired a volley of missiles at US targets in Iraq, and while the retaliatory attacks did not cause any fatalities, the IRGC shot down a Ukrainian airliner hours later, killing all 176 people on board.
Amid fears the plane disaster could trigger a new bout of protests, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei took the stage in a rare Friday sermon on January 17, defending the IRGC and urging his countrymen to take part in the legislative elections. “The presence of the people insures the country and disappoints the enemy,” he said.
For the Islamic Republic of Iran, high electoral participation is heralded as a sign of public legitimacy.
But observers say they expect a reduced turnout in February’s polls, as public discontent at perceived government mismanagement and corruption rises amid the US pressure and worsening economic conditions. The worries over voter participation have intensified in the past week, after the Guardian Council, a constitutional watchdog that vets legislation and electoral candidates, announced it had disqualified more than a third of the 14,500 parliamentary hopefuls, including a record 90 incumbent legislators.
Among them is Mahmoud Sadeghi, a member of the reformist bloc affiliated with President Hassan Rouhani in parliament. The outspoken legislator said most of those deemed ineligible to run were reformist and moderate candidates, who advocate for more democracy and greater Iranian engagement with the global community.
“At the moment, only 18 to 20 reformist candidates have been approved in Tehran,” he told Al Jazeera, a decision that he said deprived the reformists of the ability to come up with a complete list for the capital, which is allocated 30 seats. He contended that the rival bloc, known as the principlists and who favour rule based on the values of Iran’s Islamic Revolution, had hundreds of candidates on their lists for the capital.
“Elections will not be competitive and fair when they are not participated by candidates from various parties,” said Sadeghi. “This will result in a low turnout, especially in major cities.”
This could result in a parliamentary majority for the principlist bloc, observers said – a win that could strengthen their hand ahead of the presidential election of 2021, and provide fresh impetus to launch impeachment proceedings against Rouhani before the end of his term.
On January 15, a day after the Guardian Council announced the disqualifications, Rouhani sharply criticised the decision. “Please do not tell people that there are 17, 170 or 1,700 candidates for a single parliamentary seat. 17 candidates from what faction? Only one? This is not an election,” he said in a televised address. “Allow all parties and groups to run for the elections. The country cannot be run by a single faction. The country belongs to everyone.”
But Abbas Ali Kadkhodaei, a spokesman for the Guardian Council, slammed Rouhani’s comments as “anti-national” on Twitter. He later told reporters the council was reviewing petitions from some 3,700 of the disqualified candidates and would release the final list in the coming days.
Bijan Nobaveh, a principlist who was allowed to run, also dismissed the reformists’ claims, insisting candidates from both camps had been disqualified – most of them because of corruption-related issues. Nobaveh described the reformists’ complaints as a bid to divert attention from what he called a weak performance by the reformist and moderate-dominated legislature.
“Even if all of their candidates are approved, the reformists will not get more than 5 percent of the vote,” he told Al Jazeera, citing popular frustration at the country’s deepening economic woes.
Indeed, the tide of public opinion has appeared to turn against the reformists and moderates since they unexpectedly won a parliamentary majority in the 2016 elections – a win that came on the back of a nuclear accord that Rouhani’s government negotiated with world powers. The landmark agreement, which offered Iran sanctions relief in exchange for curbs on its nuclear programme, is now in danger of unravelling after the US unilaterally pulled out from the pact in 2018 and reimposed punishing economic measures against Tehran.
While Rouhani’s promise to improve life for common Iranians has been severely weakened by the US sanctions – which depleted the country’s coffers and caused the rial to lose more than 50 percent of its value against the US dollar – some experts contend Washington’s pressure campaign alone could not be blamed for the loss of support for the reformist and moderate forces.
“The reformist or moderate forces of the establishment do not enjoy credibility any more because they have been unwilling and unable to push through the reforms they were promising the people,” said Ali Fathollah-Nejad, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar.
“And they have constantly opposed the protests of the last few years and even supported the crackdown against the protesters,” he added, referring to a series of crackdowns on protesters, including in 2017 and 2018, and most recently in November, when security forces’ killed hundreds of demonstrators protesting a surprise increase in fuel prices.
At least 304 people were reportedly killed in the nationwide protests, where banks and shops in some cities were set on fire. The violence was the deadliest political unrest in Iran in decades, with Rouhani warning that “anarchy and rioting” would not be tolerated.
Many reformist politicians and groups, including an organisation led by former president Mohammad Khatami, had also criticised the 2017-18 upheaval, when protesters rallied against economic hardship and political repression.
“The expectation is that the hardliners will win the upcoming elections,” said Fathollah-Nejad “First, because important contenders are disqualified, and second, because the moderate forces have lost a lot of legitimacy and credibility in the past few years. That does not mean they [the principlists] have popular support. It will be interesting to see the percentage of participation.”
In this context, Emad Bahavar, a disqualified reformist candidate, said there was “still a possibility that the Guardian Council approves 10 to 20 percent of the disqualified reformists to prevent a consensus within the bloc to boycott the elections”, and allow it to come with a candidates’ list.
Regardless of what happened next, Raha, a young voter in Tehran, said she would not vote in the upcoming election.
“The process of disqualifying candidates is a kind of playing games which occurs in every election. First, they are rejected. But, it’s not clear how some of them are approved in the next stages and even get elected,” the young woman who asked to be identified only by her first name said in a telephone interview. “It makes no difference whether we take part in the elections or not, because nothing will be done to improve our lives. So, I prefer not to vote.”