By Talmiz Ahmad
February 12, 2020
Campaigning for Iran’s elections to the 290-member Majlis, scheduled for Feb. 21, officially began on Wednesday. Iran’s electoral scene reflects the deep political divisions in the country, with four broad political groups vying for power.
On the “left” are the reformers, who back openness and accountability in governance, the restructuring of political and economic institutions, and robust engagement with Western powers. On the “right” are the hard-liners, who uphold the values of the Islamic revolution and the sweeping powers of the supreme leader, and reject interaction with the West, fearing that the pristine principles of the revolution would get diluted — hence, they also refer to themselves as “principlists.” Between these groups are the “moderates” on the left and the “conservatives” on the right.
These divisions are indicative of orientation and tendency and do not reflect a simplistic divide between “reformists” and “hard-liners,” as favored by several commentators. Each broad group has several subgroups representing coalitions, often centered on a prominent leader. All these groups and factions are subordinate to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who, as the ultimate guardian of the revolution, wields supreme political and security authority in the country.
Ahead of the forthcoming election, Iran’s convoluted electoral system has already stepped in to ensure a sweeping triumph for the conservatives. The Guardian Council has rejected the candidature of 9,000 out of 14,000 candidates, including 90 sitting members, most of whom were either reformers or moderates. It later reinstated 2,000 of them, but this still means that nearly half the candidates are excluded from the elections.
After the 2016 elections, the Majlis had 41 percent reformists, 29 percent conservatives and 28 percent independents. Now, it is likely to be dominated by conservatives and hard-liners. Observers believe there will be no competition for 158 seats.
An unhappy President Hassan Rouhani has criticized this deliberate exclusion of his supporters, saying “people favor political pluralism in elections,” and the people should be “free to choose and elect.” He has reminded Khamenei that “nobody is above the law and the people.” Khamenei has said that Iran’s elections are the “healthiest” and has insisted that voting is “about the dignity of the establishment and the security of the nation.”
This public debate is largely between the leaders; the people remain aloof. Iran’s election campaign has commenced amid widespread popular disgruntlement and apathy. Voters who had enthusiastically supported reformist candidates just four years ago and then gave a thumping majority to Rouhani a year later seem determined to sit at home on election day. This reflects their dissatisfaction with the government and, more seriously, with the political scenario that has sapped their national wealth and self-confidence, and brought them to the edge of a region-wide conflict.
Voter indifference is largely the result of disillusionment with the Rouhani government’s failure to deliver on its promise of economic benefits following the successful finalization of the nuclear agreement with world powers in 2015. Prospects of economic prosperity and political peace withered away when Donald Trump entered the White House. He spearheaded the US’ withdrawal from the nuclear agreement and the reinstatement of sanctions on Iran, and adopted an aggressive posture that aggravated regional tensions, culminating in the assassination of Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani on Jan. 3.
As a result of the US sanctions, Iran’s economy contracted by 9.5 percent in 2019, inflation is 35 percent, and oil exports have gone from 2.1 million barrels per day in 2016 to about half a million at present. Economic outlook remains dire: The World Bank projects zero growth this year and just 1 percent next year.
Popular anger in response to the combination of economic difficulties and governmental incompetence led to widespread agitations in November last year after fuel subsidies were reduced. Then, 200 demonstrators were killed and several thousand arrested.
Later, the government’s attempt to conceal that state forces had brought down a Ukrainian civilian aircraft, mistaking it for an American missile, enraged the populace once again. Thousands of people took to the streets in an outburst of frustration at the chicanery of their leaders and the hopelessness of their situation. Not surprisingly, Iranian commentators see Trump as a “divine gift” to the hard-liners.
The outlook for Iran and the region remains grim. With the US’ aggressive posture and the negative economic outlook, Iran’s leaders, backed by a right-wing Majlis, could increasingly distance themselves from the nuclear agreement and see confrontation with the US and periodic acts of violence against American interests, as retaliation for Soleimani’s killing, as the only option available to them. This will, in turn, evoke a hard response from the US president, who is facing his own election later this year and is anxious to maintain his “tough guy” image before his core constituency.
The absence of any long-term vision that defines US interests and shapes its strategy vis-a-vis Iran and the Middle East will ensure that these acts of mutual assault will cause an upward spiral of violence that could consume the region.