Elections for the the Iranian Consultative Assembly, the equivalent of its parliament, also know as the Majlis, have returned a majority for conservative hardliners in the country, amidst the lowest electoral turnout in since the creation of the Islamic Republic in 1979. The result has obvious implications Iran’s direction in the immediate future, not least in its relations with the international community, but also raises questions about the stability of the regime.
In the first place, the conservative majority of course makes life difficult for the current president, the relatively liberal Hassan Rouhani. Having constantly been in conflict with the more conservative elements of the Iranian regime since his first election in 2013 over his efforts to improve the Iranian economy through better relations with the west (the conservatives wanting a more uncompromising, hardline approach), the make up of the Majlis will make the implementation of his policy harder. Although the Majlis’ powers are limited, it can impede the president and shape the political environment. For instance, they could block his efforts to bring Iran’s banks within international anti-terrorism financing standards, a measure clearly in the interests of both Iran and the international community.
More crucially, the results would seem to suggest that the presidential election next year will result in victory for the same hardline faction, raising the prospect of hardliners holding all of the rungs of government for the first time since President Ahmadinejad’s tenure ended in 2013.
There are obvious implications in this result and its possible follow-ons for Iran’s relations with the world. It will likely lead to pressure within the Iranian government to take a harder line against the US, though any action may well be further down the line as they plot the full extent of their revenge for the killing of Qasem Soleimani. It is quite possible that there will be no immediate escalation of action or tensions, with Iran likely gauging likely responses to any action they take after the unexpected and drastic killing of Soleimani, but under such a conservative government there can be little doubt that it will only be a matter of time.
It will also likely mean more pressure to push on more aggressively with their nuclear weapons programme, which, of course, would set them on a collision course not just with the US, but with much of the wider world, particularly western powers.
However, the result is also an indication of the difficulties faced by the regime on the domestic front. Although the Iranian people are generally united in their opposition to western powers, there are deep and large scale grievances at home, as perhaps demonstrated best by the large scale public mourning after the death of Seleimani, followed almost immediately by widespread and popular protests after the shooting down of a Ukranian passenger jet in Tehran. Prior to these events, there were large-scale and consistent protests on a number of other issues, including the poor state of the economy and hikes in petrol prices.
The turnout for the election was officially reported at just 42.5% (the first time it has ever dipped below 50% under the Ayatollahs), but there are indications that even this figure might have been inflated by the government. In Tehran, where hardliners won all thirty of the available seats, the figure was 25%.
Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, blamed Iran’s international enemies for the poor turnout, claiming that they exaggerated the threat of the coronavirus and thereby kept Iranians at home. However, there had been prominent calls before the election by critics of the regime for the citizens of the country to boycott the election in order to show their opposition to what they say is widespread repression of human rights and intolerance of dissent. On top of this, the Iranian regime disqualified over 7,000 applicants from running in the election, many of them reformers.
Rather than Kahamenei’s reasoning, therefore, it seems more likely that, faced with a drastically worsening economic situation and with Iran once more becoming an international pariah, and being denied the opportunity to vote for candidates promising reform, the electorate chose the only method it had of making its displeasure known: not voting. Such displeasure, as the country’s history of protests shows, is not unusual. Yet the scale of this boycott is striking, on a level never seen before. And it raises obvious questions about the regime’s legitimacy – not in the eyes of the outside world, of course, which already largely views it as rogue, but, far more importantly, in the eyes of its own people.
Morover, while the banning of candidates from running for election is nothing new in Iran, one aspect is: those banned included 90 sitting members of the 290-seat Majlis. Members who had been deemed acceptable at the last election, candidates whose barring would be so much more prominent than that of the candidates not already in the Majlis, were forbidden from taking part in the election. This suggests more than the standard election fixing by the Iranian regime – this could suggest panic.
It is quite likely that the Iranian regime is far from the edge and that it is nowhere near collapsing. But such a drastic measure, even by their standards, would imply that they are feeling beleaguered on the domestic front. It would suggest that they are feeling a growing fragility. Which does raise the question of whether there is something they know that we don’t. Most intriguingly, therefore, might it even suggest that the Iranian regime is less secure than it seems to the outside world?
This election results will have some clear effects for Iran’s policy and for its relations with the international community. But it also raises some intriguing questions.