In the midst of these multiple crises, the parliamentary elections held in Iran on February 21, 2020 delivered overwhelming victory to the principlists—conservatives who support the Supreme Leader and uphold the principles of the 1979 Islamic Revolution as well as the cause of “resistance to imperialism” across the region. The foreseeable death of the elderly Khamenei and the growing ineffectiveness of the state may have consequences for the stability of the Islamic Republic. The demands of society, mobilized around an array of issues ranging from labor conditions to environmental degradation, and the seeming incapacity of the government to meet these demands, only exacerbates these unprecedented internal and external pressures.
In Iran’s political structure, where political parties and gatherings are severely restricted, elections are the most important expression of political participation and electoral turnout is presented by the regime as a sign of legitimacy. As in previous elections, Supreme Leader Khamenei also claimed that voting is a religious duty. Opposition activists sometimes use the elections to articulate political demands and push for democratic reforms. Voter turnout in this election, however, was only 42 percent, while participation in the previous parliamentary election was 61 percent, and 73 percent in the 2017 presidential election. In Tehran, only 25 percent of eligible voters went to the polls, half the rate of four years ago. Ayatollah Khamenei blamed enemies’ negative propaganda about the spread of coronavirus as a tactic to reduce voter turnout. However, Iran’s interior minister, Rahmani Fazli, said the lower turnout was in fact “quite acceptable, given the outbreak of coronavirus and political circumstances such as the plane crash and protests.” With such a low turnout, the Islamic Republic cannot claim to be ruling with the support of the majority. How did we get here?
A Hamstrung Parliament
The position of parliament in Iran’s political architecture has been withering over the past 40 years. Unelected bodies, especially military and security organizations, such as the Supreme National Security Council, have gained more importance in the country’s policy-making process. There are also institutions that directly impede parliament’s legislative power. The Guardian Council, a body of 12 members of whom half are directly appointed by the Supreme Leader, has the authority to reject lawmakers’ decisions in case of inconsistency with traditions of Islamic jurisprudence and the constitution.
The Guardian Council, in addition to its power to review bills passed by the parliament, has seized absolute authority in vetting electoral candidates. Although the Guardian Council consistently disqualified reformist candidates in past elections, this time around both the scale and brazenness of disqualifications were shocking. The council disqualified more than half of those running, including 75 sitting members of parliament who were seeking re-election. In the previous election, the council had disqualified 46 percent of candidates, including 16 parliament members. Ayatollah Jannati, the 93-year-old secretary of the Guardian Council who has served on the Council since 1980, said the council banned these members from re-election because they were “financially corrupt.” Among the disqualified were Ali Motahari and Mahmoud Sadeghi, who are well known for their anti-corruption stances and have exposed numerous cases of fraud within government apparatuses. Their disqualification was also notable because their fathers were revolutionary figures assassinated shortly after the fall of the Shah: Ayatollah Morteza Motahari was one of the most influential theorists of the revolution and Mohammad Hossein Sadeghi was a member of parliament who had fought the previous Pahlavi monarchy.
Voter turnout in February 2020 was the lowest for parliamentary elections since the 1979 revolution. But, this historically low turnout was not simply a result of the government disqualification of most reformist candidates, election “engineering” and factional politics. It was also a symptom of widespread dissatisfaction with the economic and political situation in Iran—as was seen in the widespread protests across Iran in November 2019. Voters also lacked confidence in the reformist faction’s ability to respond to people’s needs. Steps taken by the United States, such as pulling out of the Iranian nuclear deal that had been negotiated by moderate President Hassan Rouhani, imposing punishing sanctions and assassinating Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani (the Commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ elite Quds Force) on January 3, 2020 have all dealt a significant blow to Iranian reformists and moderates who advocated negotiations with the United States.
Contrary to previous elections where a coalition of reformist parties endorsed a list of candidates under the name of former President Khatami, the reformists’ council this year announced that they would not support any candidates in Tehran and many other provinces. Despite this decision, some reformist parties independently offered their own lists. The official disqualification of reformist candidates, and their refusal to support any other candidates in this election, has given them the opportunity to avoid a poor showing in the results and allows them to shift all blame for crises to the conservatives in parliament.
The Effects of Social Mobilization
It is not just the widespread disqualification of candidates that persuaded the reformists not to endorse candidates—the social and political climate was not in their favor either. The reformists’ backing of President Hassan Rouhani and the previous parliament and their inability to make good on their slogans for change has led to a loss of popular support. Former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami, recognized as the leader of the reformists, recently discussed voters’ misgivings and questions about the effectiveness of their participation in the last elections and expressed doubt that “they would listen to us [the reformists] about going to the polls in the next election.” A former reformist member of parliament noted that, “Never was society as indifferent toward voting as it is this time.” A poll by the Iranian Students Polling Agency, conducted in various waves since last June, showed low interest in voting, with less than 10 percent support for reformists among those who were determined to vote. This apathy may have entered into the calculations of many moderate and reformist parliament members like Ali Larijani, the speaker of parliament, and Mohammadreza Aref, the leader of the reformist faction, to not run at all.
The protests in November 2019, the largest since the 1979 revolution, sparked by a hike in oil prices, were met with unprecedented repression that left hundreds of protesters dead. These protests sent a message to the reformists that there is dissatisfaction with electoral politics and a desire for other forms of contentious politics. Although economic grievances were the initial spark of the protests, a study by sociologists at Boston College showed that dissatisfaction with the Islamic Republic was also an important factor. The provinces with lower rates of electoral participation were also more likely to have witnessed a day of protest. A senior advisor to former President Khatami remarked that, “After the November protests, it was challenging to draw people to the polls, and disqualifications were a blessing that the reformers could use to reconnect with society and the people. Reformists must, at this time, eliminate the gap between themselves and the people.”
The assassination of Maj. Gen. Soleimani created a short-lived sense of unity and shared fate, which was quickly dissipated by the unintentional shooting down of a Ukrainian passenger jet by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) on January 8, killing 176 people. A subsequent three-day cover up by government officials enraged Iranians from all walks of life. Since many of those killed were students and graduates of Iran’s top universities, public outrage was especially pronounced among urban and middle class citizens. Although the event itself was alarming, the anger of the public was primarily provoked by the secrecy and lies of the authorities. The Rouhani administration claimed that they were unaware that the IRGC fired missiles at the jet, which led people to conclude that they were either lying, or worse, ignorant of the situation in the country. The more recent crisis over the outbreak of coronavirus in Iran, which so far has resulted in the highest fatalities outside of China, shows how government actions and inactions have deepened the public’s mistrust of state institutions.
The Role of the United States
The 2020 election has some similarities with the 2004 parliamentary election in which reformists faced a massive disqualification of their candidates (including 80 members of parliament) and boycotted the election. Voter turnout dropped to 51 percent, the principlists took the parliament and two years later they also won the presidency. In a parallel with 2020, these results came after a foreign policy failure. A reformist Iranian president and parliament were pushing for a rapprochement with the West—Iran even collaborated with the United States in the war against terrorism in Afghanistan. But the 2002 speech by then President George W. Bush that branded Iran as a member of the “axis of evil,” the threats of a military attack on Iran and the unilateral invasion of Iraq, combined with internal factors, prepared the ground for the success of conservatives.
The recent elections, however, demonstrate the limits of both the Iranian elite’s tendency to rule via crisis and of Trump’s campaign, at least in domestic politics. Principlists maintain a tougher stance on negotiating with the United States and more than 31 former members of the IRGC, principlists par excellence, now have seats in parliament. At the top of the list is the former senior commander of the corps, Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, who won the most votes in Tehran and is the most likely choice to be the next speaker of parliament. Kayhan newspaper, which is closely aligned with the Supreme Leader, published an op-ed entitled “The Resistance Parliament,” which focused on the “quality” of the election: “Qualitatively, the unanimous victory of the supporters of the resistance [i.e. the principlists] clearly expressed the future posture of the Iranian government.” Referring to the forthcoming presidential elections, the op-ed projects a “qualitative election” and asserts that the two elections will make the Islamic Republic “more coherent and resilient,” which is a vital message for resistance supporters across the region.
Shifting Factional Fortunes
The February 22 parliamentary elections in Iran have clearly strengthened radicalism in domestic politics. Only a handful of reformists have entered parliament, while the principlists make up an overwhelming majority of members. However, while the principlists agree on general issues, they also have their own internal divisions. Abbas Abdi, a prominent reformist and political analyst, believes that they will be sharply confrontational among themselves: “The united parliament is a joke.” There are in fact two main groups of principlists. The Coalition Council of Islamic Revolution Forces, traditional conservatives, are close to Haddad Adel, the former speaker of parliament and Khamenei’s in-law. The Endurance Front (Jebheye Paydari) views Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi, Qom’s most stridently conservative figure, as their spiritual father. The two groups competed in Tehran’s elections with two separate lists, but eventually managed to form a coalition in the final days before the vote. They mobilized their base to win all 30 seats in the capital, proving that they could continue to work together to protect their interests and mobilize voters. Yet, they only won about the same number of votes they had won in previous elections, showing that they have failed to add to their supporters in the capital. They were able to do so well only as a result of low turnout and by eliminating their rivals through disqualifications.
The critical question, however, is why the ruling elite of the Islamic Republic would tolerate damage to the regime’s legitimacy by taking the extreme step of disbarring all non-conservatives from running and incurring such low voter turnout? Mostafa Tajzadeh, a progressive reformist, argues that these actions are related to a longer game—the future succession of the Supreme Leader—when he suggests, “The purpose of the deep state is to have at its disposal all elected and unelected institutions at the moment of succession so that the transfer proceeds as they wish.” Informed commentators inside and outside of Iran argue that it is an attempt to push through a plan, discussed for years, to amend the constitution and change the presidency into a parliamentary system so that the Islamic Republic can consolidate its levers of power.
Whatever the rationale, the principlists have now become responsible for all the problems facing Iran. Ousting reformists and moderates may have the unintended effect of uniting them with opposition groups and civil society into a powerful social movement. The months to come will test the strength of the principlists’ internal unity and their ability to govern in the face of popular discontent and multiple national crises.
[Front page photo: A woman wears a face mask as she casts her vote during parliamentary elections at a polling station in Tehran, Iran February 21, 2020. Nazanin Tabatabaee/WANA (West Asia News Agency) via REUTERS]
Iran’s Many Deals, Middle East Report (Issue 277, Winter 2015)
“Class and Politics in Post-Revolutionary Iran: A Brief Introduction,” by Kevan Harris (Issue 277, Winter 2015)