Iran election as litmus test for rulers amidst growing dissent

Iran is holding a parliamentary election on Friday, which is seen as a test of the clerical establishment’s popularity amidst growing dissent over political, social, and economic issues.

The election will serve as the first formal measure of public opinion following anti-government protests in 2022-23, which led to significant political turmoil not seen since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Critics both inside and outside the ruling elite, including politicians and former lawmakers, are concerned about the legitimacy of Iran’s theocratic system due to economic challenges and limited electoral choices for a predominantly young population that is unhappy with political and social constraints.

Voting as a ‘religious duty’

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has emphasized that voting is a religious obligation and has accused the country’s “enemies” of attempting to instill despair among Iranian voters.

The commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, Hossein Salami, declared that “each vote is like a missile launched at the enemy’s heart.”

However, Iranians are still haunted by the violent suppression of nationwide unrest triggered by the death of a young Iranian-Kurdish woman in 2022, which resulted in mass detentions and executions by the state.

The country is also grappling with economic hardships, with many losing faith in the ability of Iran’s ruling clerics to address an economic crisis exacerbated by US sanctions, mismanagement, and corruption.

People walk past campaign posters for the parliamentary election in Tehran, Iran, February 26, 2024. (credit: MAJID ASGARIPOUR/WANA (WEST ASIA NEWS AGENCY) VIA REUTERS)

While hardline candidates are likely to garner support from establishment backers, widespread public anger over declining living standards and pervasive corruption may deter many Iranians from participating in the election.

Prices of essential goods like bread, meat, dairy, and rice have surged in recent months, with the official inflation rate at around 40%, but analysts believe it could be over 50%.

The US withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal and the re-imposition of sanctions have severely impacted Iran’s economy, and efforts to revive the agreement have not been successful.

Reformists Reject ‘Meaningless’ Vote

Activists and opposition groups in Iran are promoting the Twitter hashtag #VOTENoVote on social media, arguing that a high turnout will legitimize the Islamic Republic.

With moderates, conservatives, and reformists avoiding the election, labeling it as “unfree and unfair,” the vote will see hardliners and subdued conservatives vying against each other, all professing allegiance to Iran’s Islamic revolutionary principles.

The interior ministry has announced that 15,200 candidates will contest the 290-seat parliament, with the Guardian Council approving 75% of the initially registered hopefuls.

The unelected Guardian Council, comprised of six clerics and six legal experts aligned with Khamenei, has the power to review laws and election candidates.

Most ballots will be counted manually, delaying the final results by three days, although partial results may be released sooner.

Centralization of Power

In addition to the parliamentary election, Iranians will also vote for the Assembly of Experts, which appoints and can dismiss the supreme leader. While this clerical body seldom directly influences policy, it is expected to play a role in selecting Khamenei’s successor.

Parliament has minimal impact on foreign policy and Iran’s nuclear program, as these decisions are made by Khamenei, who holds ultimate authority in Iran’s unique clerical and republican governance system.

Polls anticipate a voter turnout of about 41%, but former lawmaker Mahmoud Sadeghi suggested that participation could plummet to as low as 27%, significantly lower than the 42% turnout in the 2020 parliamentary election.

The pro-reform opposition, discredited by failed attempts to expand political and social freedoms, faced more backlash in 2022 when demonstrators rejected its calls for gradual change.

The Reform Front coalition has decided to not engage in the election that they deem “meaningless,” although they have not officially boycotted the vote.