Iran’s conservatives will dominate the country’s new parliament following an election marked by the lowest voter turnout in decades, according to state media.
Two days after the polls closed, an Al Jazeera tally based on interior ministry results published on Sunday by state media said conservative candidates had secured at least 219 seats in the 290-strong parliament, also known as the Majlis.
With 11 seats set to be contested in a second round in April, the new parliament will also comprise of at least 20 reformists and 35 independents. Five seats are guaranteed for the country’s religious minorities: Zoroastrians, Jews, Assyrians, Chaldean Christians and Armenian Christians.
In the capital, Tehran, conservatives won all 30 seats, with former mayor and commander of the elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, topping the list.
Before the election, Ghalibaf’s conservative bloc formed a joint list with the ultra-conservative Paydari Front, or the Front of Islamic Revolution Stability. The Front is led by Morteza Agha Tehrani, a scholar and ultra-conservative politician who tends to advocate the principles that led to Iran’s 1979 revolution while Ghalibaf has a reputation of being an ambitious technocrat.
According to the Ministry of Interior, voter turnout across the country was about 42.5 percent – the lowest since the revolution. In previous parliamentary elections, nationwide turnout exceeded 60 percent. In Tehran, the turnout stood at just 25 percent, down from previous votes when it averaged 50 percent.
On Sunday, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said the country’s enemies had tried to “discourage” people from voting by exaggerating the threat of a new coronavirus but added that participation had been good. The disease has so far claimed the lives of at least eight people in Iran, while more than 40 cases have been confirmed in the country.
According to Fouad Izadi, a professor at the faculty of world studies at Tehran University, the low turnout reflected the public’s dissatisfaction with the reformist and moderate bloc, which is associated with President Hassan Rouhani.
“For the most part, a good portion of Rouhani’s supporters did not show again because they did not wish to vote for him nor for the opposition,” Izadi said.
In 2016, voters had given then bloc a parliamentary majority of 126 on the back of a landmark deal negotiated the previous year between Iran and world powers that offered Tehran relief from crippling global sanctions in exchange for curbs on its nuclear programme. The bloc – which also promised greater freedoms and international engagement – had also taken all of the 30 seats in Tehran.
But a sense of disillusionment appeared to set in among its supporters in 2018 after the US withdrew from the nuclear deal – formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – and reimposed sanctions against Iran. The financial measures put the Iranian economy into a tailspin, with inflation reaching 33.5 percent and growth declining by at least 6 percent.
“Many people were not very satisfied with their [reformist parliamentarians’] economic policies and their investment in JCPOA rather than in domestic [issues] and development from within,” Zohreh Kharazmi, an assistant professor of American studies at Tehran University agreed.
Compounding the bloc’s woes, including anger over the poor state of the economy and perceived mismanagement, Iran’s constitutional watchdog in January disqualified thousands of reformist and moderate candidates from running in the vote.
Public anger meanwhile soared last month after the military shot down a Ukrainian airliner, killing all 176 people, mostly Iranians, at a time of heightened tensions with the US following its killing of top Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani in Iraq’s capital, Baghdad, on January 3.
“Given that the US imposed more and more sanctions [and] assassinated Iranian General Qassem Soleimani … [a vote in support of the reformists] would have sent a wrong signal that Iranians were bowing down to [US] pressures,” said Zeinab Ghasemi Tari, also an assistant professor of American Studies at Tehran University.
‘Difficult year’ ahead
Iran’s Parliament is responsible for passing legislation, approving the annual budget and ratifying international agreements and treaties. All legislation passed by the Majlis is then approved by the Guardian Council and the president.
The parliament has a limited say in foreign affairs, although it has played a crucial role in some of the country’s pivotal moments, including in 2015 when it approved the now-unravelling nuclear deal.
With a presidential election scheduled for 2021, Iranian political commentator Mohammad Hashemi said the new parliament is “likely to mean tougher years [ahead] for Rouhani”.
“[It] comprises of parliamentarians who have mostly taken blatant positions against 2015 nuclear deal, who would further seek to constrain Rouhani and his foreign minister, [Mohammad] Javad Zarif,” he added.
For Izadi, the results are a harbinger to policies comparable with those of former conservative President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who took a hardline approach to relations with the West during his 2005-2013 tenure.
“The parliament will question the idea of rapprochement with the West and tend to be more conservative and populist in its outlook on social and economic issues,” Izadi argued.
While Kharazmi said conservatives in the new parliament “cannot necessarily be compared with Ahmadinejad”, she added they would seek “national independence and policies against the arrogant approach of the US”, referring to the breakdown of the nuclear deal.
Meanwhile, analysts said they expected the new parliament to provide further support for the powerful IRGC and its overseas arm, the Quds Force.
The unit, which has been criticised for meddling in regional affairs, has helped boost Iranian influence across the Middle East by building up a vast network of proxies. It has played a key role in shoring up support for Syrian President Bashar al-Asad after the country descended into war in 2011, and it also armed and trained militias that helped defeat the ISIL (ISIS) armed group in both Syria and Iraq.
“Many of the prominent conservative principlists have thrown their support behind IRGC and its Quds force external operations and it is expected that approach would further be reinforced and perused more strongly in the parliament,” Hashemi said.
Saied Golkar, professor of political science at the University of Tennessee in the US agreed: “This situation will help Khamenei and the Guard and their allies … to consolidate their grip.”