During a tumultuous period, Iran held its 11th parliamentary elections on Friday, February 21, 2020. A total of 7,148 candidates ran for a seat in Iran’s 290-seat Parliament. On election day, 55,000 polling stations were made available in 208 constituencies. Concurrently, the midterm elections for the Assembly of Experts – a deliberative 88-member clerical body empowered to designate and dismiss the supreme leader of Iran – were held. The assembly’s election is held every eight years.
Iran’s Electoral Environment:
The February parliamentary elections took place in Iran at a time of heightened tensions at home. Facing US sanctions since November 2018, the country’s crude oil, petrochemicals and minerals exports have been severely hit. Iran was also barred from using the US financial system and trading in US dollars. The US sanctions campaign has had noticeable effects on Iran resulting in a decline in GDP growth, economic stagnation, high rates of inflation and unemployment and a fall in the currency’s value. Iran’s domestic turmoil has also been exacerbated by the tragic downing of the Ukrainian passenger plane and the poor performance of senior Iranian officials in charge of the economy. The Rouhani government was neither able to work around US sanctions to export its oil nor was it successful in pressuring European countries to maintain trading with Iran, as its decision to reduce its nuclear obligations proved useless. These failures, in return, sparked public anger and protests in several Iranian cities. Protests, however, were ruthlessly suppressed in the most brutal crackdown since the Iranian Revolution in 1979. As the previous Iranian Parliament failed in reducing state violence against protesters and was unsuccessful in providing solutions for the problems faced by the people, the anticipated retaliation was the low turnout witnessed at the recent parliamentary elections.
The Role of Iran’s Guardian Council in the Parliamentary Elections:
The Guardian Council, a 12-member body composed of six clerics and six jurists, vets and disqualifies electoral candidates. The council’s decision, without providing any justification, is final and cannot be appealed against. The Iranian Constitution authorizes the Guardian Council to oversee elections only to disqualify candidates who are against the Constitution or against the Iranian Revolution. Nevertheless, the Guardian Council has been using its power in recent years to decide on candidates based on the criteria of Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei. Abiding by Khamenei’s orders, the Guardian Council has disqualified many former parliamentarians, ministers and even presidents of the Islamic Republic from standing as candidates for the Iranian Parliament. Parliamentary elections, therefore, are mere political plays directed by the Guardian Council upon the orders of Ali Khamenei.
Statistics of the Recent Elections:
A total of 16,145 candidates registered for 290 seats in the 11th round of Iran’s parliamentary elections. Disqualifying as many as 56 percent, the Guardian Council only accepted 7,148 candidates. In the previous round, the council had disqualified 51 percent of candidates. A member of the Central Council of Executives of the Construction Party criticized the policy of the Guardian Council saying, “investigating the candidates’ appeals in a 20-day deadline is impossible. ” He added, “If 50 percent of candidates out of a total of 15,000 have been disqualified and 6,000 of them decide to file appeals about their disqualifications, given the 20-day deadline for investigating those appeals and given the 18 working hours a day for the respected members of the Guardian Council, there are only four minutes for investigating each case. Is this reasonable? They definitely cannot investigate them properly, especially as some respected members of the Guardian Council are very old, it is not possible for them to work 18 hours incessantly. They practically cannot investigate 6,000 cases.” Such moves clearly aim to form a Parliament more aligned with Iran’s political system and less subject to public criticism given the deteriorating economic conditions in Iran, which could trigger more protests and lead to Iranians increasing their demands.
Rouhani’s Criticism of the Decisions Made by the Guardian Council:
Ahead of Iran’s parliamentary elections, Rouhani had criticized the Guardian Council. In reference to the negative impact on Iranian political life since the Guardian Council was first established; he said that the first two parliamentary sessions that were held before the establishment of the Guardian Council were more effective and had parliamentarians that were competent enough to serve the people.
After the Guardian Council had announced the mass disqualifications, President Hassan Rouhani said that Iran’s political currents are not fully represented by those who have been allowed to run in the 2020 parliamentary elections, in reference to the exclusion of reformist candidates.
The Chairman of the Guardian Council, Ahmad Jannati, stated that the elections will be competitive and that all political currents will be represented in the electoral contests.
From the 248 members of Parliament who decided to run for a seat in the new Parliament, the Guardian Council disqualified 90 resulting in a number of questions being raised by the Iranian public such as:
What kind of offenses did these members of Parliament commit during the past four years while serving as representatives of the people that prevented them from running for the 2020 elections?
As lawmakers who have been declared unworthy to run for the upcoming elections, would they still have the powers to make laws for the state and monitor the performance of the government until the end of the parliamentary session? If yes, how would they be able to do so while considered as unworthy to run again for elections by Iran’s political system?
The disqualifications of parliamentarians led to a war of words between the Guardian Council and the Parliament, as Iran’s Guardian Council Spokesman Abbas Ali Kadkhodaei said that most of the current lawmakers were disqualified for “financial problems.” Parliamentarians, however, defended themselves calling him a “liar. ”
The US Sanctions Against the Guardian Council:
The wide disqualification of pro-reform candidates attracted attention in the United States. The US special envoy to Iran, Brian Hook, described the Iranian elections as a “political play. ” On the eve of the election, the United States imposed sanctions on five senior Iranian officials. The US Treasury blacklisted Ahmad Jannati, the Secretary of the Guardian Council, Abbasali Kadkhodaei, Spokesman for Iran’s Guardian Council and three additional members of the Guardian Council’s Elections Supervisory Committee: Mohammad Hassan Sadiq Muqaddam, Mohammad Yazdi, and Siamak Rah-Peyk.
Iran’s Election Leaves Voters Out in the Cold, With a Record Low Turnout
Prominent lawmakers in the previous legislative term who had played the biggest role in exposing and condemning corruption were disqualified from running. Those disqualified lawmakers included Ali Mothari, the son-in-law of Ali Larijani, Mohammadreza Tabish, Hossein Naqavi Hosseini, Behrouz Nemati, Elias Hazrati, and Mahmoud Sadeghi who raised the issue of shady bank accounts belonging to the judicial authorities.
Ali Larijani, who had been elected as Parliament speaker for three consecutive terms since 2008, did not stand for re-election in the 2020 elections, announcing his decision when the candidacy registration opened. He was joined in this decision to stand down by the head of the reformist bloc in the Parliament, Mohammed Ali Reza Aref, with some suggesting that Larijani and Aref may have withdrawn in order to run in the country’s 2021 presidential elections.
A List of Groups Associated with the Conservatives
Of those who did participate, the members of the conservative political faction standing for Parliament in the 2020 elections were divided into the following seven main groups.
1-Coalition Council of Islamic Revolution Forces
Following a merger between the groups of the Revolutionary Forces and the Front of Islamic Revolution Stability, both considered as powerful conservative wings – a move followed by marathon negotiations between the members of the two groups –, the newly-merged entity selected the former mayor of Tehran Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, as its head. Ghalibaf is also seeking to be appointed as the next parliamentary speaker after failing to win the presidential election previously.
2- Iran Serbaland
A conservative electoral group led by the former mayor of Tehran Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf. The list stated that its foremost aim would be to salvage the Iranian economy.
3-Front of Islamic Revolution Stability
The Front was established as an electoral list in the 2012 Iranian elections. It is a radical conservative movement headed by Morteza Agha Tehrani, which captured 30 seats in the 11th parliamentary elections.
4-The Coalition of Revolutionary Youth
The Coalition of Revolutionary Youth is made up of 30 candidates who ran during the recent parliamentary elections. The list is headed by Peyman Noshadi. It should be noted that the head of the Coalition of Revolutionary Youth said previously that the members of this group, who are young revolutionaries unaffiliated with any political movement, had been picked from among 110 applicants.
5- Economy and People’s Livelihoods
This group is made up of 30 members, including 12 economists, nine specialists in production and marketing and nine other prominent cultural and social figures. It is headed by Gholamreza Mesbahi Moghadam.
6- People’s Coalition
This group includes senior officials who were in the former government of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. It is led by Sadiq Khalilian.
7-Group of Meddahs (Mansour Arzi’s group)
A conservative group headed by Mahmoud Nabavian.
A List of Groups Associated with the Reformists
Unlike the conservatives who put forward seven groups to run in the elections, the reformist movement put forward only two groups to contest the elections, despite the decision of the Reformists’ Supreme Council for Policymaking not to participate in the elections using electoral lists in order to allow parties working under the umbrella of the reformist movement to participate bearing their original name. The two reformist groups are:
1. Executives of Construction Party
This group is informally known as the Supporters of Hashemi and consists of 30 candidates.
2.Union of Islamic Iran People’s Party
This list is made up of 30 candidates representing the most prominent reformist parties. The parties are the Islamic Labor Party, the Democracy Party led by the reformist figure Mostafa Kavakebian, the Workers House Party, the Islamic Culture Assembly, the Islamic Iran Solidarity Party, and others.
The main electoral list of this group was the United Independent Front, which includes 30 candidates and used as its motto ‘No Lies.’
This is in addition to the Union of Independent Candidates which included several former government officials, the best known of whom is Elham Aminzadeh, formerly the vice president for legal affairs, and Ramin Mehman-Parast, an Iranian diplomat who had occupied several posts in the foreign ministry including serving as the former spokesman of the ministry and as Iran’s ambassador to Bolivia and Lithuania.
The Electoral Programs and Slogans
Iranians want the new Parliament to address the issues that mainly concern them, such as living standards, unemployment, corruption and deteriorating economic and environmental conditions. Such issues, due to their crucial importance, have become a top priority for lawmakers and the primary point on which most of the candidates’ electoral programs focused on during the 11th parliamentary elections. Many of the electoral slogans used, whether by the reformists or conservatives, touched on several social issues.
In the provincial regions, the slogans of candidates focused on the problems from which their regions suffer. The slogans of candidates in Esfahan focused on solving problems related to water and natural resource distribution inefficiency as well as on problems related to industry, transport, and culture. The issue of air pollution was also raised by candidates.
Voters criticized this election season, with many expressing disgruntlement at the uninspiring electoral programs put forward by candidates running for Parliament. Many voters said that the slogans used by candidates were nothing but electoral propaganda, with no sign of any action on the ground. Voters also indicated that the electoral programs introduced by candidates lacked diversity and were ineffective, adding that there was no difference between the slogans used by candidates in the 2020 parliamentary elections and those used in any previous elections, with the slogans of the current parliamentary members effectively the same as those in the 10th parliamentary elections, which also focused on the economy and security but did nothing for either.
The conservatives, who captured most of the seats in the current Parliament, used slogans related to welfare, security, and progress, while the reformists raised slogans focusing on hope and economic stability.
Before the elections, the electoral turnout was expected to be low due to the above-mentioned reasons, primarily the generally unhappy political and social climate surrounding the elections. The increasing number of coronavirus infections also added to those reasons. The Iranian government, however, attempted to attribute the low voter turnout in the elections to the coronavirus alone, ignoring the more crucial political and socio-economic reasons which led to a record low turnout in the elections.
Officials in the Ministry of Interior estimated the turnout at the beginning of the polls to stand at 11 million out of the nearly 58 million citizens eligible to vote. With many polling stations witnessing an extremely low turnout of voters, the Iranian election commission was prompted to extend the period for voting which was scheduled to end at 6:00 p.m. up to 11 p.m. in order to allow the largest possible number of voters to participate. The state-run Fars news agency put the turnout in the elections at 42 percent out of the total eligible voters, the lowest election turnout since the Islamic revolution in 1979.
Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, headed to the polls to cast his vote in order to encourage people to head to the polls, cloaking the parliamentary elections in a religious guise and deeming voting to be a religious duty. Khamenei uses this sort of language ahead of every election to play on voters’ sense of piety or patriotism and to try to guilt-trip them into turning out for the elections en masse. As can be seen, this effort was unsuccessful.
In addition to his indisputable wish to see his supporters in the conservative movement winning the elections and ensuring a new Parliament which is harmonious with all his decisions and orientations in the coming phase, Khamenei sought, via this election, to emphasize his popularity and legitimacy especially after the recent protests, witnessed in most Iranian cities, saw chants and slogans against the supreme leader, with protesters calling on him to step down.
However, despite his efforts as noted above, the turnout was exceptionally low with even the government acknowledging that it did not exceed 42 percent; many observers argue, however, that the turnout was far lower than this woeful figure, especially if compared to the 2016 elections when the turnout reached 62 percent or the 2012 elections where 66 percent of eligible voters participated in the elections.
According to the statistics from the Iranian Ministry of Interior, Tehran saw the lowest turnout for the elections, with only 26.2 percent of voters bothering to turn out to vote.
Outcomes of the Elections
Once the preliminary election results emerged, it was clear that the conservatives were far in the lead, capturing the majority of seats. This was, of course, a predictable outcome after the Guardian Council disqualified hundreds of reformists and prominent moderates from running in the elections. The final results confirmed that the conservatives captured 75 percent of the parliamentary seats across Iranian cities.
Speaking after he announced the names of the winning candidates, Iranian Minister of Interior Abdel-Reza Rahmani insisted, against all the evidence, that the turnout in the elections exceeded 42 percent.
According to the tallies released by the Ministry of Interior, the voters who cast their votes reached 24.5 million, with several ministers, officials, and provincial governors under the former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad winning seats. Those officials include the former Head of the Iranian Atomic Energy Organization Fereydoon Abbasi, the Minister of Economic Affairs and Finance during the second presidential term of President Ahmadinejad Shamseddin Hosseini, as well as the former Minister of Education Hamid-Reza Hajibabaei, and the former Minister of Welfare and Social Security Abdolreza Mesri.
The results also showed that the conservatives took the lead in the capital Tehran, taking as many as 30 seats, with the main winner being the former mayor of Tehran Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, a well-known conservative politician. Ghalibaf is one of the members of the Expediency Discernment Council and a former mayor of Tehran who seeks to succeed Ali Larijani as parliamentary speaker. Another conservative winner in the elections was the Minister of Culture in the government of the late Hashemi Rafsanjani; Mostafa Mir Salim who is one of the most prominent conservative leaders in the Islamic Coalition Party. Out of the final results for 241 seats, the conservatives won 191 seats, the reformists 16 seats, and the independents 34 seats. There are 49 seats for which results have not yet been decided, with the vote on these seats to be held in the second round of the elections