The stream of anti-American rhetoric that usually emanates from Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s Twitter account was interrupted this week for a public-service message, directed at his fellow Iranians: Please vote.
The outcome of Friday’s parliamentary election in Iran is easy to forecast: Conservatives and hardliners will dominate the 290-seat Majlis, in large part because a record 9,000 candidates – out of the 16,000 who put their names forward – were barred from running by the country’s Guardian Council. The majority of the candidates who were disqualified were affiliated with reformist or centrist factions, including 90 members of the current Majlis.
While the parliament has little policy-making power, a conservative-dominated Majlis would signal that Iran is preparing for deeper confrontation with the West, with fewer pragmatist voices calling for the country to abide by a 2015 nuclear deal. Hopes that Iran might eventually hand over the black-box data recorders from Ukrainian International Airlines Flight 752, which was shot down Jan. 8 by Iranian air defences, killing all 176 people on board, would also grow even more remote.
A poll published by the state-run Tehran Times said that 57 per cent of voters intend to cast their ballots for the conservative Proud Iran list headed by former Tehran mayor Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, while 27 per cent said they support the remaining reformist candidates.
What’s not known is how many Iranians will bother to cast a ballot on Friday. Many reform-minded voters – angry over the lack of social and economic progress, as well as the government’s lack of transparency over the downing of Flight 752 – are expected to demonstrate their discontent by staying away from polling stations.
Hossein Derakhshan, a London-based analyst of Iranian media and a former political prisoner in Iran, said most people he knows in Iran’s big cities are not planning to vote on Friday. “Some are voting, yes, the practical ones who say that an 85-per-cent majority [for the conservatives] is still better than 95 per cent. But most people are emotionally very angry, and that’s why they’re not going to vote. They’re so angry that they can’t be pragmatic.”
Mr. Khamenei's admonitions, which were reported first on state television, and then posted on his Twitter account, suggest the regime is worried that low turnout will undermine the legitimacy of the next Majlis.
"Voting is not only a revolutionary and national responsibility, but it is also a religious duty," Mr. Khamenei said. "Iran should become stronger; this frustrates the enemy. One manifestation of strength is having a strong Majlis. The more participation there is in the election, the stronger the Majlis will be."
The outgoing Majlis is dominated by reformist supporters of President Hassan Rouhani. They were swept to office in a 2016 election that was held amid optimism borne from the previous year’s signing of a pact in which Iran agreed to curbs on its nuclear program in exchange for a lifting of Western economic sanctions. Freed from the punitive restraints, the country’s economy grew 13.4 per cent in 2016, and another 4.3 per cent the following year.
U.S. President Donald Trump’s 2018 decision to withdraw from the nuclear deal (which was negotiated by his predecessor, Barack Obama) and to reimpose sanctions left the reformist camp exposed and looking naive. The country has slid into a damaging recession – shrinking 4.9 per cent in 2018 and another 8.7 per cent in 2019 – and an overnight trebling of fuel prices in November sparked a series of angry demonstrations that includes calls for “regime change.” The hardline Revolutionary Guards responded with a harsh crackdown in which hundreds of protesters were killed and thousands jailed.
Military tensions with the United States have also grown, particularly since last month’s assassination of Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the Revolutionary Guards, in a U.S. drone strike. Iran retaliated by firing ballistic missiles at U.S. bases in neighbouring Iraq.
In the current atmosphere, the Guardian Council, a 12-member body of religious clerics and conservative judges that vets candidates for political office, appears to want a Majlis that supports a showdown with the United States.
“It’s an opportunity for conservatives, after eight years of centrist politics, to pursue their own agenda without significant domestic opposition or factional infighting,” said Sanam Vakil, an expert on Iran at Chatham House, a London-based foreign affairs think tank.
The 80-year-old Mr. Khamenei, who as Supreme Leader has the final say on all affairs, has backed the Guardian Council’s decision, saying ”those scared of speaking out against foreign enemies” had no place in parliament.
Even with the result largely predetermined, Ms. Vakil said, the regime was worried the next Majlis would lack legitimacy if turnout fell far below the 62 per cent reached in 2016. She said voters in Tehran and other urban centres are a particular concern for the Islamic Republic, which draws most of its support from rural areas.
Facing the loss of his parliamentary support base, Mr. Rouhani has also called on Iranians to vote on Friday. “I beg you not to be passive. … I am asking you … not to turn your back on ballot boxes,” he said in a Feb. 11 speech.
However, several prominent dissidents, including Narges Mohammadi, have called for a boycott of the election. Serving a 16-year sentence for belonging to a banned human-rights organization, she made her plea via a posting on her husband’s Facebook page. “We need to rise up in the most civilized way and launch a strong boycott campaign to respond to the repressive policies of the government,” she wrote.
The Guardian Council’s intervention to tilt the political scene in favour of conservatives is also seen as setting the tone for next year’s presidential election, when Mr. Rouhani is barred from running for a third consecutive term. The mass banning of reformist politicians ahead of a 2004 parliamentary election foreshadowed the rise of hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the presidency a year later.
Mr. Derakhshan, the media analyst, said he saw a transformation taking place inside the regime ahead of the 2021 presidential vote, with the Revolutionary Guards – which he dubbed “the de facto Iranian Ba’ath party,” after the nationalist movement that used to rule neighbouring Iraq – usurping the clergy as the main centre of power.
Many see a more confrontational Iran as a predictable outcome of Mr. Trump’s “maximum pressure” policy toward the Islamic Republic.
“It should be no surprise to the Trump administration that conservative factions are coming to power,” Ms. Vakil said. “Analysts, including myself, have been warning the Trump administration for 3½ years that this would happen.”