'Moderate' candidates excluded in run-up to Iran's legislative elections

The Guardian Council barred more than 7,000 people from the elections out of more than 14,000 who applied.
Sunday 16/02/2020
Iranians walk past an electoral poster of a candidate in the upcoming parliamentary elections on a street in Tehran on February 12. (AFP)
Extremists wanted. Iranians walk past an electoral poster of a candidate in the upcoming parliamentary elections on a street in Tehran on February 12. (AFP)

ISTANBUL - Hardliners are expected to win big in Iran’s parliamentary elections February 21, ending a string of election victories by "pragmatists" in recent years and setting the stage for the 2021 presidential poll, analysts said.

Tensions between Iran and the United States over Tehran’s nuclear programme form the backdrop of the election for the 290-member chamber. More than 50 million voters are asked to go to the polls amid economic pressure from US sanctions and a credibility crisis for the regime following the violent suppression of street protests in November and the downing of a Ukrainian passenger jet by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) in January.

The election is a political test for competing political camps in Iran as they stake out positions for the looming succession of 80-year-old Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

“These elections are significant because they are paving the ground for a conservative takeover of Iran’s elected institutions for the first time since 2012,” Ali Vaez, director of the Iran Project at the International Crisis Group, said by e-mail.

The hard-line IRGC, which has gained considerable economic and political influence, could see its power strengthened as a result of the election.

“The tendency is towards a more hard-line polity in the Islamic Republic with a more prominent role of the IRGC,” Ali Fathollah-Nejad, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Centre, said in a message in response to questions.

“I think this kind of horizon is also understood by the Iranians who, in protests in the wake of the shooting down of the passenger jet, were shouting slogans against the IRGC and their willingness to sustain a conflict with the US to divert attention from popular discontent as well as an eventual de facto rule by them that might emerge down the road.”

The current parliament, elected in 2016, has more than 100 "reformists" and "moderates," while the rest of the chamber is split between independents and hardliners. Pragmatists won the last two presidential elections, in 2013 and 2017, but President Hassan Rohani is barred from running in 2021 after two terms.

In the run-up to the parliamentary elections, the powerful Guardian Council, a constitutional watchdog that vets prospective candidates, barred approximately half of the more than 14,000 people who applied to enter the race. The majority of those rejected were reformist and moderate candidates but there were also hardliners among those barred, as well as 90 current lawmakers.

Rohani, whose pragmatist camp could be weakened in the election, criticised the council’s approach, saying it had hurt “competition and participation.”

“The greatest danger for democracy and national sovereignty is the day when elections become a formality,” the government’s website quoted Rohani as saying in a meeting with provincial governors in January.

Vaez said that by weeding out reformist candidates, the regime demonstrated its determination to minimise internal debates.

“The system’s tight grip in vetting the candidates shows that it doesn’t want to take any risks in these elections and seeks a pliant parliament that would allow for internal consolidation in the face of external threats,” Vaez said.

Moderates and reformists have championed improved ties with the West and expanded social freedoms but they suffered major setbacks since US President Donald Trump’s election in 2016. Trump pulled the United States out of Tehran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, setting the agreement -- championed by Rohani -- hurtling towards collapse and re-imposed sanctions that sent Iran’s economy into free fall.

“The hardliners in Iran have lost every election since 2012 but Trump has been a political boon for them by completely discrediting their pragmatic rivals who invested their entire political capital in the 2015 nuclear deal, which is hanging by a thread now,” Vaez said.

He added that the February 21 vote could provide clues for next year’s presidential race and beyond.

“The takeover of the parliament by the hardliners is likely to harbinger a similar development in 2021 presidential elections. With the supreme leader’s succession looming on the horizon, the stakes for the control of these power centres are quite high.”

Angry protests followed attempts by the IRGC and hardliners to deny the IRGC’s responsibility for the downing of the Ukrainian jet in January but Fathollah-Nejad said the pragmatists also had a problem.

“There is still a lot of public scepticism vis-a-vis all wings of the regime,” he said.

Pragmatists could “try to portray themselves as some kind of an opposition to this kind of effort by the hardliners to monopolise power,” he added, “but, yet again, the context is that also the reformists have lost much credibility in view of large sections of the population over the past few years” because they failed to deliver on their promise of economic and political improvement after the signing of the 2015 nuclear agreement.

As both hardliners and pragmatists struggle to create enthusiasm, voter turnout will be a key factor. A high participation rate is likely to be seen by the regime as a vote of confidence in the Islamic Republic despite mounting economic and political problems. Turnout in the 2016 parliamentary election was nearly 60%.