On February 9, Iranians will head to the polls to choose members for the country’s 290-seat parliament. The vote could not come at a more sensitive time for Iran.
The country is still grappling with the chaotic fallout from the United States’ assassination of top Iranian general Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad on January 3. The killing, which pushed the longtime foes to the precipice of an all-out-war, came as Washington tightened sanctions against Tehran as part of a years-long “maximum pressure” campaign that has crippled Iran’s economy and driven down its oil exports. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’s (IRGC) actions to avenge Soleimani’s killing, however, only increased the turmoil in Iran.
On January 8, the paramilitary force fired a volley of missiles at US targets in Iraq, and while the retaliatory attacks did not cause any fatalities, the IRGC shot down a Ukrainian airliner hours later, killing all 176 people on board.
Amid fears the plane disaster could trigger a new bout of protests, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei took the stage in a rare Friday sermon on January 17, defending the IRGC and urging his countrymen to take part in the legislative elections. “The presence of the people insures the country and disappoints the enemy,” he said.
For the Islamic Republic of Iran, high electoral participation is heralded as a sign of public legitimacy.
But observers say they expect a reduced turnout in February’s polls, as public discontent at perceived government mismanagement and corruption rises amid the US pressure and worsening economic conditions. The worries over voter participation have intensified in the past week, after the Guardian Council, a constitutional watchdog that vets legislation and electoral candidates, announced it had disqualified more than a third of the 14,500 parliamentary hopefuls, including a record 90 incumbent legislators.
Among them is Mahmoud Sadeghi, a member of the reformist bloc affiliated with President Hassan Rouhani in parliament. The outspoken legislator said most of those deemed ineligible to run were reformist and moderate candidates, who advocate for more democracy and greater Iranian engagement with the global community.
“At the moment, only 18 to 20 reformist candidates have been approved in Tehran,” he told Al Jazeera, a decision that he said deprived the reformists of the ability to come up with a complete list for the capital, which is allocated 30 seats. He contended that the rival bloc, known as the principlists and who favour rule based on the values of Iran’s Islamic Revolution, had hundreds of candidates on their lists for the capital.
“Elections will not be competitive and fair when they are not participated by candidates from various parties,” said Sadeghi. “This will result in a low turnout, especially in major cities.”
This could result in a parliamentary majority for the principlist bloc, observers said – a win that could strengthen their hand ahead of the presidential election of 2021, and provide fresh impetus to launch impeachment proceedings against Rouhani before the end of his term.
On January 15, a day after the Guardian Council announced the disqualifications, Rouhani sharply criticised the decision. “Please do not tell people that there are 17, 170 or 1,700 candidates for a single parliamentary seat. 17 candidates from what faction? Only one? This is not an election,” he said in a televised address. “Allow all parties and groups to run for the elections. The country cannot be run by a single faction. The country belongs to everyone.”
There are two main factions in Iran’s 290-member parliament – the reformists and the principlists [Vahid Salemi/AP]