Why Iran’s reformists are likely to lose parliamentary vote

Faction allied to Hassan Rouhani is unlikely to retain parliamentary majority amid anger over economic mismanagement.

Photos of campaign posters in Tajrish Square in Iran’s capital city, Tehran, Iran ahead of the election [Arwa Ibrahim]

Tehran, Iran – Apart from a few campaign posters in Tehran’s main squares, there is little sign a parliamentary election is set to take place in Iran on Friday.

The key vote will determine the direction of the country as it grapples with a worsening economic crisis and a punishing “maximum pressure” campaign by the United States, but there is little interest in the vote among Tehran’s eligible voters.

At one cafe near the capital’s San’at Square, Mohamed Tauwsi said he did not plan on taking part in Friday’s poll, because of disappointment with the politicians he had voted in four years ago.

“I voted for the moderates and pro-reformists in 2016 hoping that they would do something,” said the 40-year-old statistic professor, referring to the political faction allied to President Hassan Rouhani in the 290-member parliament.

“I thought they would better the country’s economy, bring us social freedom and enhance our global standing, but they’ve done nothing,” he said, warming his hands around a cup of hot tea.

Mohamed Tauwsi, a 40-year-old statistics professor at Azad University says he was disappointed that the moderate and pro-reformist bloc die not bring change after he voted for them in 2016 Iran
Mohamed Tauwsi, a 40-year-old statistics professor at Azad University says he was disappointed that the moderate and pro-reformist bloc did not bring the change they had promised. [Arwa Ibrahim/ Al Jazeera]

It was a different mood the last time. Voters in Iran had handed the refomist and moderate bloc an unexpected parliamentary majority in 2016 on the back of a landmark deal negotiated between Tehran and world powers that offered the country relief from global sanctions in exchange for curbs on its nuclear programme.

The bloc – which also promised greater freedoms and engagement with the world – won around 126 seats, and took all of the 30 seats in Tehran.

But the political current appears to have shifted amid a series of crises, beginning with Washington’s decision in 2018 to abandon the nuclear accord and reimpose sanctions against Tehran, including on its oil and banking sectors. The financial measures put Iran’s economy into a tailspin, with inflation reaching 33.5 percent and growth declining by at least 6 percent last year.

As the crisis worsened, public anger began to grow against the Iranian government and the country’s elite over perceived mismanagement and corruption, as well as heavy-handed crackdowns on dissent.

“We [young people] have no future,” said 22-year-old Fatima Hussein, who is studying biology at Tehran University. “Even if we get degrees and study, we can’t find jobs or make a living for ourselves … The government has done nothing to help.”

Habib, a 40-year-old taxi driver, who preferred to give one name, said: “What can I say? I’m struggling to get by. I can’t even pay the instalments for my car. It’s crushing for me as a dad not to be able to provide for my daughters.”

Hamdi, a 40-year-old, Taxi driver from Tehran says he struggling to get by every month due to the the country's worsening economic conditions, Iran
Habib, a 40-year-old taxi driver, says he struggling to get by every month due to the country’s worsening economic conditions [Arwa Ibrahim/ Al Jazeera]

Experts say the dissatisfaction with the reformist and moderates’ record means the bloc was unlikely to retain its majority in this year’s election. Their rival principlists, who favour rule based on the ideals of Iran’s 1979 revolution and conservative Islamic values, are widely expected to regain control of the parliament.

“The so-called reformist and pro-administration camp is not expected to do well [in the vote],” said Mohammad Marandi, professor of English literature at the University of Tehran.

“The main reason [for that] is the economy,” he said. Many voters also blame a widening gap between the rich and the poor on the current administration’s “pursuit of openly liberal economic policies, which aren’t known for creating social and economic equality,” he added, without elaborating further. 

One such measure that triggered mass protests in November was a hike in fuel prices and strict rationing of fuel. The plan was agreed by a new committee made up of Rouhani, judiciary chief Ebrahim Raisi and the Speaker of Parliament Ali Larijani. Tens of thousands took part in protests against the measure across the country.

Amnesty International said more than 300 were killed in the ensuing clampdown, but Iranian authorities have dismissed the claim. Some prominent politicians in the reformist and moderate camp, including Rouhani, criticised the protesters, resulting in a further loss of support, according to observers.

Photos of campaign posters in Tajrish Square in Iran’s capital city, Tehran, Iran  ahead of the election [Arwa Ibrahim]
Photos of campaign posters in Tajrish Square in Tehran, ahead of Iran’s parliamentary election [Arwa Ibrahim/ Al Jazeera]

The accidental downing of a Ukrainian airliner on January 8 – amid heightened tensions over the US assassination of a top Iranian general days before – also eroded the reformists’ popularity with some accusing the government of a coverup after it took three days for officials to admit they had shot down the plane.

Tauwsi, the statistics professor, cited these developments in his decision to boycott Friday’s vote.

“I do not plan to vote out of respect for those who died in the plane crash and the protests,” he said.

Reformist politicians contacted for a response to the allegations declined to comment.

Rouhani, however, has previously said Iran’s problems were “primarily because of pressure from America and its followers … And the dutiful government and Islamic system should not be blamed.”

The reformist and moderate camp was dealt another blow in January when Iran’s constitutional watchdog, the Guardian Council, disqualified thousands of their candidates from running in the election. Those barred include at least 81 incumbent legislators, of which the majority were reformists and moderates.

Mohamed Sadeghi, a reformist who was disqualified, condemned the council’s decision as an overreach of its constitutional rights.

“It’s interference [in the election] has hurt the council’s position and damaged its reputation. Parliament should reflect people’s voices…and different opinions [should] be present in parliament,” he said.

But the council defended its decision, with spokesman Abbas Ali Kadkhodaei saying: “The law says that a candidate should have a good reputation and be committed to the constitution. Just because someone is a parliamentarian now doesn’t necessarily mean they can stand again if issues come to light.”

He added: “More than 16000 people registered, which is a big number for 290 parliamentary seats. Naturally, their circumstances should be studied based on legal principles that parliament itself has ratified.”

In protests of the disqualifications, the reformist bloc’s policymaking committee announced earlier this month that it will not be putting forward a list in Tehran and other cities. It said the various parties could announce their lists independently, after which eight reformist parties this week announced a joint independent list. 

Mohammed Hashemi, a Tehran-based analyst, said the council’s decision was the final nail in the coffin for the reformists and the moderates.

“It is highly unlikely if not impossible for reformists to win another vote or gain a majority in the new parliament, given the extent of disqualification of their candidates,” he said.

Source: Al Jazeera