February 21, 2020
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s grip over Iran is expected to tighten as locals are set to go to ballot boxes Friday to vote in parliamentary elections.
Low voter turnout is expected following the mass disqualification of moderate candidates.
“All of this is political theatre… These elections are essentially meaningless because the Iranian system is set up in a way that you can only run for office if you have been approved by Ayatollah Khamenei and his people,” Alex Vatanka, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Middle East Institute told Al Arabiya English.
Thousands of reformist and conservative candidates have been disqualified by the Guardian Council, a body made up of 12 clerics and jurists, which determines the eligibility of candidates according to criteria such as their commitment to Islamic practices, their loyalty to Velayat-e Faqih, Iran’s religious system of law, and the Islamic Republic.
The Guardian Council, which reports directly to Khamenei, allowed approximately 7,150 candidates to run out of more than 14,000, according to state TV. Nearly a third of sitting parliamentarians were banned from running again.
Khamenei urged Iranians to participate in the elections, saying on Tuesday it was a “religious, national, and revolutionary duty,” according to semi-official news agency Tasnim.
Mostafa Tajzadeh, a former deputy minister under former President Mohammad Khatami, said in a Tweet he will boycott the elections because they had effectively become “appointments” by Khamenei, rather than impartial elections.
Analysts see that the mass disqualifications have a dual purpose for Khamenei. First, to weaken President Hassan Rouhani, his ally outgoing Speaker of Parliament Ali Larijani, and their supporters and second, secure a loyal parliament to gain more control in the upcoming 2021 presidential election.
“This maneuver serves two purposes: In the short term, should Ali Larijani run for and win the presidential election in 2021, a parliament hostile to Larijani secures the overall checks and balances within the system,” Ali Alfoneh, senior fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, told Al Arabiya English.
“In the longer term, a uniform parliament makes political succession after Khamenei easier for the regime,” he added.
In a country of 83 million people, there are about 58 million eligible voters who are over 18 years old. However, most analysts expect low turnout, and caution that the Iranian regime will claim victory regardless of the actual results.
“Even before these protests, voter turnout was anticipated to be lower than normal. Participation in the July 2019 Tehran municipality election was at a nadir of 9 percent,” Sanam Vakil, Senior Research Fellow at Middle East and North Africa Program, Chatham House told Al Arabiya English.
“To prepare for this challenge, Iran’s parliament has lowered the vote threshold for a valid result from 25 to 20 percent,” she added.
There has been widespread discontent with the regime, especially under the weight of the economic sanctions imposed by the US.
The regime has also been under great pressure since last year when hundreds of protesters, upset with a hike in fuel prices, were killed in what was the bloodiest crackdown since the 1979 Islamic revolution.
“It is expected that the urban-based youth that are economically frustrated by the political and economic situation will not participate,” Sanam Vakil, Senior Research Fellow at Middle East and North Africa Program, Chatham House told Al Arabiya English.
The killing of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) – Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani by a US strike in Iraq briefly united Iranians in a sense of national solidarity.
However, that was quickly replaced by anger at the regime when Iranians learned Tehran covered up that it accidentally shot down a Ukrainian airliner that killed all 176 people abroad.
Those developments caused the regime to lose even more of its political capital. In addition to the fact that the people are left with little to no option but to choose from a narrow selection of hardline candidates, it’s highly likely that the turnout will be quite low.
“I suspect it will be a historic low turnout, and the numbers that will be produced by the Iranian government will have to be taken with a big grain of salt because whatever happens, they will claim a win,” Vatanka said.
Rouhani has tried to rally people and encourage them to vote: “I beg you not to be passive… I am asking you… not to turn your back on ballot boxes,” he said in a speech on February 11.