The 2020 parliamentary election is causing much anxiety in Tehran

The Iranian leadership is desperate to secure a smooth election in 2020, but its tactics might not work.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei
Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei waves to members of the Revolutionary Guard's all-volunteer Basij force in Tehran, Iran,Nov 27, 2019 [The office of the Supreme Leader via AP]

The preparations for Iran‘s February 21 parliamentary election are already under way. Almost 16,000 people have registered to compete for the 290 parliamentary seats. 

The upcoming vote, even though past experience tells us they will be unfree and unfair, holds monumental importance for the future of Iran’s regime. Elections have long been used by the Iranian leadership as a tool to force the elites into a race to prove their loyalty to the regime and create the illusion of public support and democratic legitimacy. And this time around, it is more desperate than ever to show its detractors at home and abroad that it represents the will of the Iranian people.

On November 15, the Iranian government announced a 33 percent increase in fuel prices, as its economy suffered a sharp downturn under crippling US sanctions. In response, thousands of people took to the streets to voice their discontent with the policy and the regime. In the following days, the demonstrations rapidly spread to 29 of Iran’s 31 provinces, with young and working-class protesters demanding that religious leaders step down immediately.

The regime’s response was brutal. It gave no official death toll, but Amnesty International said it documented the deaths of at least 304 protesters.

Even before protests swept across the country, many Iranians frustrated by both the hardliners and the so-called moderates, planned not to participate in the elections. The regime’s attempts to violently suppress peaceful anti-government protests, however, convinced even more people to boycott the vote. As a result, most Iran watchers expect to see an exceptionally low voter turnout on February 21. 

This is a major concern for the regime, especially at a time when its popularity is fading and it is facing unprecedented pressure from the international community. Even the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC) weekly magazine, Sobh-e Sadeq, warned in its latest edition that only a high voter turnout could help the regime prevail against US President Donald Trump’s maximum pressure strategy against the country. 

It is true that in the face of the continuing protests, a low turnout in the election would make it impossible for the regime to keep its pretence of legitimacy alive.

The easiest way to attract voters is, of course, to hold free and fair elections where Iran’s citizens would be allowed to vote for candidates who represent their interests rather than the religious and security elites running the country. This is clearly not an option for the regime, which is aware that the only way it could survive is to create the illusion of democracy without actually giving the population a say.

While it is a mammoth challenge even for an oppressive regime ruling with an iron fist to bring unwilling voters to the polls to participate in a sham election, Iran’s leaders still have some options.

They could order members of the Basij militia, an arm of the Revolutionary Guards that is made up of young volunteers loyal to the regime, to go to the polls to increase numbers. They could also resort to manipulating statistics and using their vast propaganda machinery to try and convince the world that a majority of Iranians participated in the election.

Alongside these tried and tested tactics, this election season the regime appears to be introducing a new trick to convince disillusioned voters to participate: Nominating its young, lesser-known supporters instead of old, established politicians who have no credibility in the eyes of the Iranians. 

The head of IRGC social and cultural command, Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari, recently admitted to this fact when he stated that he believes the only way to get Iran out of the impasse it is currently in is to elect young candidates. 

On December 1, the Revolution’s Supporters Coalition Council, the umbrella group for Iran’s hardliners, asked its young supporters to register as candidates in the 2020 election. General Mohammad Qalibaf, former IRGC commander and former mayor of Tehran, who is one of the most prominent hardliner candidates in the upcoming election, also encouraged his young supporters to run. Many of his young proteges, who call themselves “neo-principlists”, swiftly responded to his call and embarked on electoral campaigns. 

The candidates supported by Tehran’s Basij Professor organisation are also running under the name Tehran’s revolutionary youth.

The idea of “youth-washing” the regime to hide its growing disconnect from the people appears to have come from Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei himself. In February, Khamenei issued a new manifesto, titled The Second Phase of the Revolution, to mark the 40th anniversary of the 1979 revolution. In it, he placed the “revolutionary youth” at the centre of his vision for the future of the Islamic Republic and emphasised that only young Iranians can carry the revolution forward.

A few months later in May, during a meeting with pro-regime university students, he underlined the importance of youth participation in politics once again and asked his young supporters to “prepare the ground for the formation of a young and pious government“.

Of course, the Supreme Leader’s call for Iran’s youth to participate in politics is not extended to all young Iranians. 

The Guarding Council, a 12-member committee, is responsible for vetting all potential candidates in Iran’s elections. Over the years, the council ensured the regime’s continued control over the legislature by not allowing candidates who are likely to disrupt the status quo to run.

It is undoubtedly going to stop any candidate, young or old, from running in next year’s election if they are perceived to be hostile to the regime. Furthermore, the council is currently under increased pressure to be more aggressive in its vetting process.

Ayatollah Khamenei views successful completion of the 2020 parliamentary vote and the convening of a new, younger “revolutionary” legislature loyal to the regime as the first step in creating his vision for a more homogenous Islamic Republic that would remain on the revolutionary path even after his passing. The next step will be the election of a similarly “revolutionary” administration in the 2021 presidential vote. At that election, the goal of the regime will be to find a popular hardliner candidate who is similar to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad but even more loyal and obedient than him. 

The regime’s tactics to artificially increase turnout numbers and to convince Iranians to participate in an election where they are forced to choose between loyalist stooges, however, are unlikely to work.

Over the last four decades, the gap between the people and the regime gradually widened and the Islamic Republic lost most of its support base. The regime alienated the upper, more westernised classes immediately after the revolution. Later the middle classes also moved away from the regime – the Green movement that arose after the 2009 presidential election was a sign of the middle classes’ growing dissatisfaction with the country’s leadership. Since 2017, the lower classes, who traditionally formed the regime’s most significant support base, have also lost their belief in the system. With every passing day, more and more Iranians are coming to the conclusion that the regime does not represent them and cannot be reformed. 

The Iranian people want and deserve leadership that respects their wishes and protects their interests. Until Iran’s leaders understand this fact and hold free and fair elections, the gap between the Iranian people and their rulers will continue to widen, the protests will continue and the real voter turnout will remain low. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.