Iran has held the opening session of its new Parliament under strict health protocols, more than three months after an election in February was swept by conservative candidates.
During the first session of the 290-member body on Wednesday, the new MPs were sitting at a secure distance, with some wearing face masks in line with physical distancing rules imposed to limit the spread of coronavirus in one of the Middle Eastern countries hit hardest by the pandemic.
President Hassan Rouhani, who is in the final year of his second and final term, called on MPs to place the “national interest above special interests”, “party interests” or “constituency interests”.
“I hope that in the year that remains for this government we will be able to cooperate and work together,” he said in an address before the newly formed Parliament, or Majles, in the capital, Tehran.
The call for cooperation came as the previous Parliament tried 10 times to impeach ministers from Rouhani’s cabinet – and succeeded on three occasions.
The new legislative body, which was previously dominated by Rouhani’s reformist-moderate camp, is now composed of a majority of 220 conservative politicians, including more than 50 who are close allies of former hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
There are also 38 independent legislators and 18 pro-reform and moderates, down from 136 in the previous House. The number of female MPs stands at 16, compared to 17 before.
So far, 278 of the 290 seats contested in the February 21 vote have been decided, with the remaining posts to be allocated in a by-election next year. Two of the elected legislators have since died due to coronavirus, which has sickened nearly 140,000 people and caused more than 7,500 deaths, according to health officials.
In line with tradition, the eldest MP – in this case Reza Taghavi – has taken the role of temporary speaker of Parliament before a vote next week will determine the permanent replacement of incumbent Ali Ranjani.
Only 42.5 percent of registered voters cast ballots in February’s vote, the lowest turnout in the four-decade history of the Islamic republic and an apparent indicator of the rising level of public discontent at perceived government mismanagement and corruption amid worsening economic conditions.
The vote was the first parliamentary election since the United States withdrew from a landmark nuclear deal between Iran and world powers in 2018, and reimposed crippling economic sanctions against Tehran, including on its oil and banking sectors.
The poll also came just weeks after the downing of a Ukrainian airliner which was accidentally hit by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, killing all 176 passengers and crew on board. The January 8 shooting down took place at a time of heightened tensions with the US following the assassination of General Qassem Soleimani in a January 3 US air raid in neighbouring Iraq.
The tragedy, coupled with a perceived lack of transparency, triggered a wave of unrest, especially in Tehran, further exacerbating a sense of distrust towards authorities.
Weeks before the election, the Guardian Council, a body that vets legislation and electoral candidates, disqualified from the race more than a third of the 14,500 candidates, mostly moderates and reformists, including more than 80 reformist legislators.
According to critics, the move nullified the chance for a competitive election paving the way for the victory of the conservative camp.