Iran’s Parliamentary Elections: Political Actors Strategies & Potential Fallout of Conservative Victory

EPC | 17 Feb 2020

Iran's political scene continues to heat up as the country gears up for the next parliamentary elections. On the official level, there have been verbal clashes between the conservative wing-held Guardian Council of the Constitution, which is charged with qualifying parliamentary candidates, and the government, which accused the Council of not being neutral and excluding all candidates who belong to political groups outside the conservative line.

On the political groups’ level, the reformists keep mum on the elections after hundreds of reformist candidates have been disqualified from running in the forthcoming polls. On the other side, cracks have started to appear among the conservatives, otherwise known as the principlists. In the meantime, the grassroots remain relatively apathetic towards the electoral warm-up with no indications that there are above-average preparations for the next vote, sparking fear among regime's circles that the turnout might sink to unprecedented levels.

Low Voter Turnout Forecast

No official polls have yet produced any forecast of voter turnout in the upcoming elections. The truth is that even if such polls emerge, their credibility cannot be corroborated in the absence of neutral institutions that can conduct such surveys in Iran. However, the overall findings of opinion polls conducted by various entities can give a general picture of voter turnout in the forthcoming parliamentary elections.

Although independent or opposition parties cannot conduct a direct opinion poll on the street, polls conducted through opposition websites, and through their channels on social media platforms, in particular messaging and VOIP app Telegram, can be highly credible. This is due to the fact that Telegram is considered the largest social media platform used by the Iranians. Available statistics indicate that approximately 48 percent of Iranians use this platform and more than 62 percent of Iranians, especially the youth and the educated class, have accounts in this application. 

A poll in which more than 612,000 people participated on "Telegram" showed very pessimistic results about voter turnout in the next elections. About 93 percent of the total respondents said they will not participate in the elections. The findings also indicated that voter turnout in the next elections will not exceed 14 percent, while 86 percent will not vote.

With regard to polls conducted by more formal institutions, a survey administered by the pro-reformist HIT Group has revealed figures that are largely identical to the results of the survey mentioned in the previous paragraph. According to the HIT Group poll, voter turnout will stand at 19 percent only. Furthermore, the poll showed that 11 percent of the respondents affiliated themselves with the conservative line against 14 percent saying they are reformists. An overwhelming 75 percent of the respondents said they don't belong to either line. Additionally, 49 percent of pro-conservative line respondents said they plan to cast their votes in the next elections compared with 23 percent among the reformists, while 85 percent of non-partisan respondents said that they will not participate in the upcoming elections.

As for polls conducted by entities close to official agencies, a poll, conducted by Shabake Khabar news channel, part of Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting, in which 134,000 people participated, showed that about 82 percent of respondents refuse to participate in the parliamentary elections. In another poll conducted by the same channel after modifying the questions, about 69 percent of 115,000 respondents said they would not vote in the parliamentary elections.

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Despite the fact that all of these polls project a low voter turnout, the forecast underlines similar projections by key political forces, whether reformists or conservatives. Hamid Rasaee, a key principlist politician, has repeatedly said that the conservative line expects and even favors a low voter turnout.

1. Official Bodies

Notwithstanding the welcome some conservative figures have shown towards the expected low voter turnout, more senior regime officials have somehow seemed concerned of this scenario and have tried to encourage the public to vote in the elections. In this context, Iranian President, Hassan Rouhani, called on eligible voters to forgo their discontent and cast their votes because the regime is in "urgent need" for their participation. Moreover, the country's Supreme Leader called on everyone to participate, even if they disagree with him, and reject his idea, in order to save Iran, threatening dire consequences for those who try to sow despair in the hearts of people and push them away from participating in the elections.

Despite these calls and concern over voter turnout in the next elections, the moves taken by sovereign institutions, at the forefront of which is the Guardian Council of the Constitution which is charged with deciding on the eligibility of the candidates, show that the calls do not rise to the level needed to mobilize public opinion. Further, these moves demonstrate a will to exclude entire political currents from the electoral circle and to limit the process to competition within a single group. Meanwhile, official agencies seek to mobilize voters and raise turnout, especially in pro-conservative line villages and small cities, to acceptable levels.

2. Conservative Line

The conservative line, with its different spectra, views the next electoral battle as an historic opportunity to restore control over the parliament, after losing it to the reformists who also bagged all of Tehran's seats in the last elections.

The conservative camp has implicitly welcomed the possibility of low turnout in the elections, and has tried not to mobilize the street to participate in the vote. This is mainly due to a political rule that has become acceptable in Iran that the lower voter turnout is, the more likely the conservatives will win the elections. Alternately, a higher turnout suggests better chances for the reformists to win the elections. This is driven by the fact that the conservatives depend mainly on lower classes votes and the votes of the Basij members, considered all-time voters. On the other hand, the reformists rely on the votes of the middle and the educated classes, who are known to abandon the elections at times of anger and discontent.

All indications signal that the conservatives are expected to secure a majority in the next legislature regardless of voter turnout given the fact that competition over 157 seats (54% of total seats) will be purely limited to candidates from the conservative line. Additionally, conservative candidates will be competing in many cities of the countries against unknown candidates from the reformist and moderate lines.

Although the conservatives continue to gear up for the upcoming parliamentary elections with a greater level of certainty over victory, this certainty has opened the doors of differences within the conservative current itself as a result of the lack of a competitor that unites them. Despite all the efforts made by senior conservative figures and leaders to heal the rift, a major division has become increasingly evident within their ranks. This division is concentrated between two groups, which can be called the majority and minority. Both groups refuse to unite, making the prospect of them fielding two different candidate lists in the capital and in many major cities a possibility. This split may be a thorn in the side for the next parliament, although it will be a largely and purely conservative parliament, and could touch off conflicts over the speakership of the parliament that Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf is preparing for.

The majority group within the conservative line represents that spectrum of traditional conservatives led by the "Jamiah-yi Ruhaniyat-i Mubariz" (Combatant Clergy Association), "Al-Mu'talefah Party" (Islamic Coalition Party), "Danesjuyan Mosalman Piru Xatt Emam" (Muslim Student Followers of the Imam's Line), and some neo-conservatives, led by former Tehran mayor Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, and the blocs affiliated with the "Popular Front of Islamic Revolution Forces". As for what we call the minority group within the conservative line, it is represented by the "Jebheye Paydari" (Islamic Revolution’s Endurance Front), which is close to hardline cleric Misbah Yazdi, and the former Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council Saeed Jalili.

3. The Reformist Line

Until two months ago, the split was clearly evident within the reformist line over participation in the upcoming parliamentary elections. Three options emerged, the first of which was "conditional participation" in the elections, which was adopted by the Reformists' Supreme Council for Policymaking led by Muhammad Reza Aref, the Executives of Construction Party close to the network of late President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, and the "Ḥezb-e Eʿtemad-e Melli," (National Trust Party), close to Mehdi Karroubi. The second of these options is "boycotting the elections" which is the option advocated for by the "Ettehad Mellat" (Union of Islamic Iran People Party), "Jebheye Mosharekate" (Islamic Iran Participation Front) and students’ blocs. The third option was to "participate in all circumstances", an option that was called for by the "Workers' House", the "Mardomsalari" party (Democracy Party), and the "NEDA Party" (Second Generation of Reforms). However, the circumstances that followed the fielding of candidates resulted in restricting competition within the reformist house between a majority that refuses to participate and takes a position of silence regarding the upcoming elections, and a minority demanding participation in the elections in order to preserve the reformist presence.

As hundreds of reformists have been disqualified and the growing certainty that winning a parliamentary majority is unlikely, the majority group within the reformist line heads towards not presenting a unified list, while the minority seeks to produce a candidate list of a reformist character. Regardless of the fact that the pro-government forces suffer from the same division over participation in the parliamentary elections, however, they have stronger reasons to participate as some of them plan to approach the government with a stronger tone in the event of winning the majority in the parliament.

Potential Fallout of Conservative Win

The likely scenario, then, appears to be a major victory for the conservative line, given the low number of reformist candidates on the one hand, and the expected low voter turnout (at least in major cities that have long been known as reformist strongholds). This expected conservative victory carries with it several repercussions, both at home and abroad, which can be summarized as follows:

  1. Domestically, this prospective major victory will pave the way for a more intense confrontation with the Rouhani government. In this context, several key conservative figures, including parliament speaker hopeful Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, have repeatedly said that the parliament must confront the Rouhani government (which they accuse of failure and of being unable to address the country's crises). Some of those figures accused the current parliament of giving the government a broad margin for action and granted it a wider space of freedom under Ali Larijani’s leadership of the parliament. It seems that the next legislature will place massive pressure on the government under the banner of "a strong parliament", a slogan called for by many of the conservative figures, as Supreme Leader Khamenei alluded to, when he spoke with a tone that revealed a major disagreement with President Rouhani. Such pressure will be multi-faceted and will most likely include grilling of cabinet members and even Rouhani himself and blocking projects the government might utilize to gain popularity that helps it field a candidate close to Rouhani in the next presidential elections.
  2. The conservatives' control of the parliament will undermine the government's efforts to resolve outstanding issues with the international community. If the diplomatic apparatus of the government has so far kept the door open to some outstanding issues, especially with European Union countries, in light of the space given to it by influential moderate figures in the Iranian parliament, then the departure of those figures from the parliament may close this door. This has been already pointed out by some members of the parliament, including the former chairman of the national security and foreign policy committee. This will have significant implications for handling Iran's issues with the international community, even if we assume that this closure will be temporary. For example, references can be made to issues such as the FATF laws (which the parliament has passed bills called for by the group in line with government policies), and the parliament's resistance to pressure to cut ties with Britain after the arrest of its ambassador.
  3. A conservative majority in the parliament will stir more disagreements within the conservative house itself, which can be seen clearly at the present time. In an initial step, conservative forces close to hardline cleric, Misbah Yazdi, and Saeed Jalili refused to submit to the domination of other conservative figures and turned down the idea of running in a single list with them. Both men accused some conservative figures of dictatorship and voiced discontent with the fact that former Tehran mayor Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf was at the top of the list. In addition to these two blocs, which will most likely form the two main parliamentary blocs in the next parliament, it can be indicated that a number of figures close to former president Ahmadinejad, and the government along with some reformists might win. Even if all of this does not undermine Ghalibaf's chances for the next parliament's speakership, it will certainly open the door wide for broader disputes within the conservatives, which might be further exacerbated by the absence of a conservative plan for the next presidential elections. Also, one must not overlook the possibility of Ghalibaf's opponents agreeing on a candidate for the speaker job, a move that will certainly pose a direct challenge to the man.

General Conclusions

It can be said that the sovereign arms of the Iranian regime are moving to ensure that those off the official line do not find their way to the parliament. In other words, these arms favor a loyal parliament over a heavy turnout that would help the current political system withstand and resolve its deadlocks with the international community. With that in mind, one can explain why these arms have been seeking to push the reformist line out of the electoral battle.

The move signals a conservative line's desire to monopolize the legislative power to pressure the Rouhani government as a prelude to monopolize the executive power in the upcoming presidential elections. This reason in itself cannot be convincing, as the political system has proven effective in creating alternative bodies for the parliamentary institution (granting institutions, that fall under the leader’s choice box, such as the Expediency Discernment Council, the Guardian Council of the Constitution and the Supreme National Security Council, more legislative power and depriving the parliament of its real job) that are tasked with legislation and defining the mandate of both the government and parliament. But today, it is more than ever in need for mobilizing the support of the public opinion and the institutions of the revolution to demonstrate to the world that it enjoys wide popular support.

The political system favored the purification of parliament from non-loyal elements at the expense of the popular participation that it desperately needs for a cause more important than the mere desire to monopolize power, or pave the way to dominate the government in 2021. This reason can be attributed to the political system’s willingness for a sovereign transition which needs a political environment free of figures who have relatively independent opinion. This reason is more important than Iran's need for popular support in the current circumstances. This premise can be further established by the news about Khamenei's poor health and the preparations for a sovereign transition process that needs a calm and harmonious environment which a parliament with a majority of conservatives can help create.


Scenarios: Given the predetermined outcome, the expected victory of the conservatives in the upcoming parliamentary elections, and the likelihood of obtaining a comfortable majority, the following scenarios attempt to forecast the impact of this victory on the internal political scene and on Iranian foreign policy:

First Scenario: A Conservative-held Parliament Triumphing Over the Government. This scenario assumes that the conservatives secure a parliamentary majority, and agree on a speaker, namely Ghalibaf. According to the scenario, the parliament, which has a harmonious majority, will take two steps:

1. Paralyze the government, block its projects, and put it under the conservative line's control.

2. Try to expand the conservatives' grassroots base by marketing their ability to manage internal crises ahead of the upcoming presidential elections.

This scenario, then, assumes a fierce confrontation with the government in the next stage. Despite the realism of this assumption, it ignores the fault lines of dissent and disagreements within the conservative line itself. It also relies on possible intervention by sovereign state arms to heal the rift, but past experiences prove that this intervention was unsuccessful on many occasions. Therefore, this scenario remains probable but not likely.

Second Scenario: A More Divided Conservative Line. This scenario assumes a conservative parliamentary majority, but it will not be able to overcome its internal differences, which leads to an ongoing parliamentary conflict between several wings within the conservative line itself. This scenario is supported by the fact that the conservatives have failed to produce a single candidate list in Tehran and in other main cities. According to this scenario, the government will try to use these rifts to prevent a consensus within the conservative line that threatens to completely paralyze its movement. It will also try to establish a parliamentary bloc comprising representatives who disagree with the parliamentary majority, in order to put the brakes on the parliament. This scenario is supported by the parliamentary experience in previous sessions, where the differences deepen within the conservative line when it achieves a comfortable majority with no strong rival that unites the conservatives. Thus, another round of political infighting can be expected if the conservatives win the parliament by an overwhelming majority. This scenario does not attach much importance to the conservative line’s resolve to confront a common enemy, Rouhani and his government, since it implicitly assumes that the biggest competition for the conservatives is Khamenei's succession, a competition that is completely confined within the conservative line itself.

Third Scenario: Further Iranian-International Escalation. This scenario assumes that a conservative majority in the parliament will fuel tension with the West on several fronts, including the FATF, nuclear negotiations, and setting minimum ceilings for the relationship with some European countries such as Britain and France. The next Iranian parliament might also try to pass escalatory bills, such as withdrawal from the NPT, which means a major escalation with the international community while granting ideological forces such as the "Revolutionary Guard" more space and privileges. All in all, the Iranian regime seems to be moving aggressively towards embracing a fortress mentality with no room for differing opinions, depriving itself of one of the most important mechanisms for creating solutions and exits from its worsening crises.


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