Explainer: what’s at stake in Iran’s parliamentary elections

Campaign posters in Tehran. EPA/Abedin Taherkenareh

Iranians will vote on February 26 to elect both the 290-seat parliament and the 88 clerics of the Assembly of Experts, the body that chooses the supreme leader. This is the most important political moment for the Islamic Republic since the disputed 2009 presidential vote and the mass protests that followed. Here’s why it matters.

Iran’s parliament, the Majlis, is elected every four years. It has little influence over the supreme leader or institutions such as the judiciary and the military – including the elite Revolutionary Guards – but its makeup is a crucial determinant of the government’s success.

The Majlis can support or block proposed legislation, including the annual budget and the five-year development plan, and it can caution and impeach ministers, a power it has used regularly.

The Assembly of Experts, meanwhile, can theoretically supervise and replace the supreme leader, but in practice it almost always serves as little more than a rubber-stamp for him. Its next eight-year term, however, could be unusually important as 76-year-old Ayatollah Khamenei, whose health has been fragile, might soon have to be replaced.

Generally speaking, Iranian politics is defined by four factions: hardliners, conservatives (usually now identified as principlists), centrists, and the more liberal reformists.

The principlists, organised in 2002, have become the most powerful faction in both the parliament and the assembly. They have established supremacy over the reformists, who briefly led during the presidency of Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005) but who have been suppressed for more than a decade by harassment, detentions, and crackdowns. Nonetheless, the principlists face serious challenges.

The discontent after principlist Mahmoud Ahmadinejad “won” the manipulated 2009 presidential contest fostered a strong centrist movement, which was propelled into power by President Hasan Rouhani’s surprise victory in 2013. Partly into reaction to that movement, as well as the “sedition” of the protests, new fundamentalist, “hardline” factions such as the Endurance Front (Jebheye Paydari) criticised the principlists for not being firm enough in shutting down social and political challenges.

Meanwhile, the hardliners appear to have influence in the judiciary and the Revolutionary Guards, and the reformists have survived the legal, political, and social restrictions against them.

A rigged process?

Long before Iranians cast their ballots, the conservative hardliner and principlist factions tried to ensure that only the “right” candidates were chosen. The Guardian Council, whose 12 members are chosen by the supreme leader and the judiciary, disqualified more than half of the 12,000 prospective candidates for the Majlis, and it has only approved 166 of the 801 hopefuls for the assembly. Even the grandson of Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic, was banned because he’s considered too close to the centrists and reformists.

This purge will ensure that the assembly remains in the control of conservative clerics. Former president and relative pragmatist Hashemi Rafsanjani also will be blocked from regaining the chair of the assembly, which he held from 2007 to 2011, scotching his proposal to replace the supreme leader with a fixed-term five-member council after Khamenei dies.

But even so, the elections for parliament still matter. To maintain some veneer of legitimacy, the Guardian Council has had to allow some centrists to stand, along with 90 reformists.

The big day nears. EPA/Abedin Taherkenareh

The reformists and the centrists have responded by establishing joint lists to create a genuinely viable electoral bloc. This alliance is a shrewd move to avoid repeating the disastrous boycott of the 2012 elections, which simply allowed the hardliners to gain ground thanks to low voter turnout. This time, reformist voters will almost certainly participate, even if they still can’t be sure their votes will be counted.

The hardliners and some principlists have been concerned for months about this strong centrist-reformist challenge. The head of the Guardian Council, the head of the judiciary, and the commander of the Revolutionary Guards have all accused leading politicians, including Rafsanjani, of fostering a foreign-backed “sedition” to undermine the Islamic Republic.

That campaign has implicitly been supported by the supreme leader, who has repeatedly declared that the “enemies” of the US and Britain are plotting regime change, and that Iranians must move for the right candidates to prevent this.

Why this time matters

Although the supreme leader and supporting institutions such as the Revolutionary Guards have most of the power in the Iranian system, they do not have complete control. Their dominance was seriously shaken after the 2009 presidential election, which was manipulated to stop reformist Mir Hossein Mousavi from winning and which sparked massive protests. The Green Movement‘s demonstrations for rights and reform were eventually crushed, but the problems that outraged the protesters are still there.

The 2013 presidential campaign showed how vulnerable the supreme leader and his supporters are. The Guardian Council thought it had ensured a hardline or principlist triumph by disqualifying Rafsanjani, but the “consolation” candidate Rouhani won nonetheless.

Always watching. EPA/Abedin Taherkenareh

Despite the hardliners’ animosity towards him and the centrists, Rouhani is still essential, since he has the requisite technocratic skill to turn around Iran’s economy, which has been crippled by years of mismanagement and sanctions. His indispensability led the supreme leader, despite his hatred of the US government, to support the July 2015 nuclear deal.

But however “moderate” Rouhani has been in foreign affairs, he has done little to open up Iran’s political and cultural space. He has not tried to fulfil his promise to free Mousavi and other opposition leaders, and the judiciary and Revolutionary Guards have maintained a tight grip, with ever more artists, journalists, and activists detained since autumn 2015.

If the centrist-reformist bloc succeeds, it would not only embolden the government’s plan to stimulate the economy but could encourage Rouhani, Rafsanjani, and allies to push back against the post-2009 crackdown. That in turn would present the supreme leader, the judiciary, and the Revolutionary Guards with a stark choice: either allow some measure of “openness” in Iran’s post-sanctions politics, or reject it with their warnings of Western-fomented “sedition”.

Through a combination of electoral management and those who do support hardliners and principlists, Ayatollah Khamenei will likely be able to claim another success for his model of what the Islamic Republic should be. But there is still a chance that he could be brought up short.