Iranian regime faces crisis of legitimacy risk in parliamentary election

Iran’s elections have been overshadowed by disqualifications of more than 7,000 mainly moderate and reformist candidates by the Guardian Council oversight body.
Sunday 23/02/2020
An Iranian woman and a child walk past electoral posters in Tehran, February 18. (AFP)
An Iranian woman and a child walk past electoral posters in Tehran, February 18. (AFP)

ISTANBUL - Following the violent suppression of countrywide protests and an attempt to cover up the downing of a passenger plane by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Iran’s government is facing a potential crisis of legitimacy in its parliamentary elections as boycott calls aim to lower voter turnout and to deny the leadership a much-sought sign of popular support.

Tensions between Iran and the United States are likely to continue after the vote because Tehran is waiting to see whether US President Donald Trump, who has waged a “maximum pressure” campaign against Tehran, wins re-election in November.

Iran’s elections have been overshadowed by disqualifications of more than 7,000 mainly moderate and reformist candidates by the Guardian Council oversight body. The council threw out more candidates than it allowed in, including most incumbent MPs.

As a result, observers expect a clear victory for Iranian hardliners. Security hawk Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, a former commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, who served as mayor of Tehran for 12 years, is a strong contender for parliamentary speaker after the election.

Arash Azizi, a doctoral candidate in history at New York University, said the Iranian election was “the beginning of a new phase for the Islamic Republic -- one in which the reformist forces are effectively eliminated from the political scene.”

He said Iranian President Hassan Rohani, a moderate whose term ends next year, was likely to face a hostile parliament for the rest of his tenure. “The Rohani government is very unpopular and in its last year and a half it has to live with a conservative parliament that will antagonise it,” Azizi said via e-mail.

With Iran facing growing international isolation and threats of conflict over its nuclear standoff with Washington amid rising discontent at home, turnout is seen as a referendum on the establishment.

“We anticipate 50% of people will participate in the election,” Guardian Council spokesman Abbas-Ali Kadkhodaei said at a televised news conference February 19.

Turnout was 62% in the 2016 parliamentary vote, while 66% of those eligible voted in 2012. About 58 million Iranians are eligible to vote. On February 18, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said voting was “a religious duty.”

“Khamenei’s quandary is that he wants his hardliners to win with a big turnout,” Bobby Ghosh, a Bloomberg News columnist, wrote on February 20.

“He has been exhorting Iranians to vote, to show the world that they are behind him and his policies,” he added, “but Iranian voters would have to be willing to forgive their supreme leader for decades of misrule and to forget the corruption of his regime, his brutal crackdown on protests, the recent shooting down of a civilian jetliner -- and the attempted cover-up thereafter.”

Activists and opposition groups called for a boycott of the election, distributing the Twitter hashtags #BoycottIranShamElections and #VOTENoVote widely on social media.

In a message from her jail cell, posted on her husband's Facebook page, Iranian rights activist Narges Mohammadi said a boycott of the elections was the only peaceful means of protest left now that demonstrations are no longer being authorised.

“We need to rise up in the most civilised way and launch a strong boycott campaign to respond to the repressive policies of the government,” wrote Mohammadi, who is serving a 10-year sentence for “forming and managing an illegal group.”

Masih Alinejad, a former journalist who left the country and leads a campaign against the enforced Islamic headscarf for women, issued a video on social media warning that voting overlooks the memory of those killed in anti-government protests.

While officials tell everyone to vote for the sake of the country, “the day after the election, it’s back to normal -- the establishment claims the votes gave the Islamic regime legitimacy and all promises of greater freedoms are forgotten,” she told Agence France-Presse from New York.

“The candidates are preselected, no opposition views are tolerated and even the turnout is stage-managed,” she said, adding that, instead of voting, people should demand a UN investigation into protests in November that were triggered by a sharp rise of petrol prices.

Amnesty International confirmed the death of 300 people in the crackdown that followed the protests and some estimates of the number killed are far higher. Iran rejects the reports but has not given its own figures.

Tehran’s admission that it accidentally shot down a Ukrainian airliner in January, killing all 176 on board, sparked more protests at the very moment when the authorities were seeking to consolidate national sentiment following the US assassination of top commander Major-General Qassem Soleimani.

The Iranian parliament does not play a major foreign policy role in the country’s political system. Azizi said Khamenei, 80, would continue to set the guidelines of how Tehran deals with the United States and the rest of the outside world.

“Whatever strategy he decides for talks with the US will be followed, regardless of noises that might be made from the parliamentary floor for or against,” Azizi said.

“In the less than nine months left to the US elections, Khamenei and Trump will have to continue their game of brinksmanship and political chess, a process in which the Iranian parliament will have a little role.”