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Why are elections being called in Iran?

The pre-selection of pro-regime candidates nullifies electoral competitiveness and discourages participation of an increasingly apathetic population

Elecciones Iran
A man looks at election posters of candidates running in the Iranian parliamentary elections, on Monday in Tehran.ABEDIN TAHERKENAREH (EFE)
Ángeles Espinosa

Iran will return to the polls on March 1. As is the case every four years, the authorities are holding new legislative elections amid growing apathy among citizens, with few believing in elections that provide no real alternative. Not even the conjunction with the renewal of the Assembly of Experts, a conclave that during its eight-year mandate is expected to elect a new supreme leader (the current one, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is 84 years old), offers an incentive to counteract the abstention that sparked the crushing of the reformist movement of 2009.

That point marked a turning point in the Islamic Republic. Many Iranians regarded the reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as fraudulent over the election of Hosein Mousavi, a candidate who was much more popular among the young. However, the slowdown in the reform aspirations of those generations who did not experience the 1979 revolution began several years earlier. It was during Mohammad Khatami’s government, whose half-hearted gestures of openness served to neutralize Iran’s real power: the alliance between the supreme leader and the military of the Revolutionary Guards.

During the almost three decades in which I covered the different Iranian elections (presidential, legislative, municipal) I witnessed a gradual disillusionment among citizens with a process that not only disregards their yearning for change, but no longer even provides them with alternatives. The system ensures that any possibility that does not conform to the parameters of power is limited through a series of parallel institutions such as the Guardian Council, which holds the right of veto over the candidates and also over the laws ultimately passed by the Iranian Parliament (Majles). In this way, the country’s “Islamic democracy” is nothing more than an empty shell.

This is not just because the requirements for aspiring deputies include being a practicing Muslim (except for the five seats earmarked for religious minorities) or a supporter of the Islamic Republic. The court constituted by the 12 judges of the Guardian Council (half of them religious, appointed by the supreme leader) determines their ideological and moral competence in a discretionary manner.

Take Tehran as an example. The province where the Iranian capital is located, which is a cluster of 15 million inhabitants, is electing 30 deputies. Official spokespersons are busy announcing that nearly 3,900 candidates are running, three times more than in 2020. However, this abundance of names falls far short of offering real alternatives, as most of the reformist and moderate candidates have been vetoed. Indeed, the former president, Hasan Rohani, somewhat suspect of being anti-establishment although not as dogmatic as the current rulers, has failed to form a complete list with the approved members of his political group (there are no real parties in Iran). Meanwhile, the Reformist Front, which unites around 20 reformist organizations, will not even be participating and has denounced that the election call is “not competitive, not free and not fair.”

The hardliners, who have held control of Parliament for the past two decades and held 232 seats (out of 290) in the outgoing House, do not want to risk losing an iota of power. Nevertheless, the protests that have ensued in recent years have revealed the discontent of a considerable part of the population, whether they are women, young people, vulnerable workers or the unemployed. Not even in the Assembly of Experts, a traditionally more conservative organization due to its religious nature, do they have it all in their hands. The Guardian Council has vetoed Rohani, who was seeking re-election. Meanwhile, the current Iranian president, the ultra-conservative Ebrahim Raisi, has refrained from running for the Tehran parliamentary seat and has opted for a small rural district where he is the only candidate after the withdrawal of a possible challenger and the disqualification of the rest of the aspirants.

So why are elections being called, and why preserve the illusion? The rulers of the Islamic Republic continue to seek legitimacy through elections as the consequence of the dual nature, republican and theocratic, of their regime. Still, the political project, which in 1979 represented a novel proposal in the face of the Shah tyranny, has turned into another form of despotism 45 years later. This is how Iranians see it, with barely 30% of potential voters intending to vote, according to data from the Ministry of the Interior. If confirmed, this will be the poorest turnout ever in Iran’s history.

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