Iranian elections and the challenges of popular discontent

Iranian elections and the challenges of popular discontent

On March 1, two elections will be held in Iran (File/AFP)
On March 1, two elections will be held in Iran (File/AFP)
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Two elections will be held in Iran on March 1. These elections will be the first to be held since the outbreak of the national uprising following the death of Mahsa Amini, a young Iranian-Kurdish woman, in September 2022. To avoid any risk of protests and to protect the system (“nezam”) from internal turbulence, the Guardian Council has filtered the candidates for these two elections and eliminated most of the critical candidates and moderate voices. The other objective is to have the shortest electoral period possible to control the political process and avoid the emergence of spontaneous critics during the electoral campaign.

For the parliamentary elections, the campaign for candidates for the 2024-2028 legislature will be launched on Feb. 22 and will last for one week. The Guardian Council has announced that the candidacies of 14,912 people have been accepted to contest the 290 seats.

According to IRNA, Ali Motahari will be the head of the list of the political current close to Ali Larijani, the former speaker of the Iranian parliament who is considered to be a moderate conservative. Motahari, a former moderate deputy and a controversial figure, was disqualified from the 2020 legislative elections, but his candidacy has been validated for the upcoming vote.

Despite the presence of Motahari, most of the moderate candidates have been excluded. The Etemad newspaper published a press release signed by 110 “moderate” political and civic activists, in which they denounced the “purge” of candidates carried out by the Guardian Council. The paradox of the moderate political voices from the establishment of the Islamic Republic is that, despite their marginalization from the political system, they continue to call for a high turnout in the elections.

Despite the presence of Motahari, most of the moderate candidates have been excluded

Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami

Concerning the election for the Assembly of Experts, the disqualification of former President Hassan Rouhani is a blow for the future of the moderate factions of the Islamic Republic, especially in the context of the succession of the supreme leader. Rouhani was considered as a potential successor to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei when he was president from 2013 until 2021. This exclusion opens a new era of consolidation of power for the Iranian hard-liners and reinforces the candidacy of President Ebrahim Raisi, as well as that of Mojtaba Khamenei, to succeed the aging Khamenei.

According to official Iranian media, Rouhani has sent two letters to the Guardian Council asking it to present the reasons for his disqualification. Furthermore, the Association of Combatant Clergy, a conservative body, and the Society of Teachers of the Qom Seminary published a joint list for the 16 seats in Tehran for the Assembly of Experts. On this list appears the name of Mostafa Pourmohammadi, whose candidacy was initially rejected by the Guardian Council but later accepted after an appeal. Nevertheless, only 26 candidates have been approved to contest the 16 available seats in Tehran.

The official narrative promoted by Interior Minister Ahmad Vahidi considers that “election engineering” is the enemy’s keyword to reduce voter turnout. Despite this narrative, the challenge of participation will be the second main factor determining the future of elections in the Islamic Republic after the supreme leader’s succession. According to a recent independent survey on participation in the upcoming elections, the turnout will be the lowest in the history of the Islamic Republic. The poll found that only about 15 percent of Iranian voters intend to vote in the parliamentary elections, while 77 percent said they would not vote and about 8 percent are undecided.

Moreover, according to the government’s official polls, participation in the elections process will be at its lowest level since the revolution in 1979. The Iranian Students Polling Agency recently announced that only 27.9 percent of the Iranian people said they would participate in the elections. In contrast, 36 percent said they would not participate at all. A regime insider has mentioned that turnout in the parliamentary election is likely to be as low as 15 percent in the capital.

A regime insider has mentioned that turnout is likely to be as low as 15 percent in the capital

Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami

This low participation rate is a consequence of the supreme leader’s choice not to have any internal competition, so that he can focus on the unity of the establishment and organize an orderly succession process. The economic crisis and the weakening of the national currency in the context of the regional tensions will also be a defining factor in the decision of Iranian citizens to participate or not in the upcoming elections.

The reformist factions will not participate in the parliamentary elections because they consider that the system is not open and fair. Despite this decision, most Iranian opponents have already lost faith in the possibility of reform in the Islamic Republic, even on economic and social issues. The failure of the reform movement is one of the factors explaining the outbreak of anti-system protests between December 2017 and the fall of 2022.

Despite the lack of popular support for the reformist factions, they were banned from participating in the 2020 parliamentary elections, as well as the presidential election of 2021. The 2024 elections will open a new era of the hard-liners’ total control of the political system, thus ensuring the reelection of Raisi in 2025, his accession to the presidency of the Assembly of Experts — putting him in charge of choosing the next supreme leader — and the promotion of a hard-liner to the position of supreme leader after the end of Khamenei’s tenure.

The only uncertainty regarding the parliamentary elections seems to be about the reelection of Parliament Speaker Mohammed Bagher Ghalibaf, as some radical conservatives want to remove him from his position. This internal conservative struggle will contribute further to public disaffection and alienation, especially against the backdrop of the publication of the salaries of Iranian lawmakers. They receive a monthly salary of more than 2 billion rials per month, or about $4,000. This is more than 20 times the salary of an ordinary government employee.

The rise of economic inequalities in Iranian society, as well as the perceived privileges of political figures, will probably increase the gap between the political elite and most of the Iranian population, despite the regime’s efforts to ensure a massive turnout in the upcoming elections.

  • Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami is the founder and president of the International Institute for Iranian Studies (Rasanah). X: @mohalsulami
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