The internal politics of Iran is being shaken by the election agenda while the Israel-Hamas war continues in a tense phase. The elections scheduled for March 1, 2024, will define both the composition of the 12th term parliament and the Council of Experts, which is empowered to appoint the Supreme Religious Leader. As the upcoming elections are the first since the large-scale protests that swept across the country in 2022 following the killing of activist Mahsa Amini, some observers hope that the election marathon will be held in a relatively democratic atmosphere. Although the fact that the registration process of candidates started in August and this online procedure was initially promoted as a positive element, later an opinion began to be heard more widely that this initiative stems from the need to create an imitation of a “transparent and democratic environment” during the election process.
Although a record number of 48,000 people reportedly confirmed their candidacy online at the initial registration stage, the Council of Guardians (“Shuraye Negahban”) responded negatively to the applications of thousands of candidates who did not conform to the “values and principles” of the regime. It should be noted that one of the main points criticized by the reformists is that the new articles added to the Election Code enable the disqualification procedure of the opposition candidates to be made more stringent. Thus, the extension of the registration period allows more candidates to participate in the election, and on the other hand, it gives the regime additional time to ensure a deeper and more thorough examination of the candidates. In other words, some opposition forces representing the reformist wing have started voicing boycott messages, characterizing the change to the Election Code as a reactionary and anti-democratic step.
Based on the monitoring of the state-affiliated media resources, we can say that the main goal of the regime is to achieve high turnout in the upcoming parliamentary elections. It should be recalled that the 42 percent turnout recorded in the 2020 parliamentary elections is considered the lowest since the 1979 Islamic revolution. This indicator, which calls into question the legitimacy of the Majlis, is likely to decrease further in the background of the deepening socio-economic crisis and the regime’s increasing persecution of dissidents. According to the results of the survey conducted in July 2023, the level of public distrust in the parliament among the population has risen to 68 percent, which sounds an alarm from the point of view of weakening social support for the regime. In this regard, the theocratic authorities hope to ensure high participation in the upcoming parliamentary elections in order to strengthen public trust among the people.
The same line is evident in the statements in the political groups representing the conservative-fundamentalist camp as well. It is evident that conservative politicians, drawing inspiration from recent calls from the Supreme Religious Leader Seyyed Ali Khamenei, are conducting a propaganda campaign with all their strength to mobilize the population for the elections.
The ultra-conservative Paydari party (Front of Islamic Revolution Stability), which has a dominant position in both the parliament and the government, backed with the support of the regime in the previous elections, is considered the strongest force of the conservative wing in the upcoming elections. Besides, politicians from the conservative camp, such as the current speaker of the parliament Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf; the former soldier Hossein Allahkaram, who is reportedly considered to be engaged in criminal activities; the minister of roads and urban development Mehrdad Bazrpash; and the current mayor of Tehran Alirza Zakani, are all expected to participate in the elections under a separate list of candidates. Whether the political parties led by those persons will unite with the Paydari party under one coalition is still in question.
It is hard to say that a special pre-election activity was observed in the opposition camp. Ex-president Mohammad Hatami, famous reformist leaders like Mehdi Karroubi, Abdollah Nouri and other like-minded influential politicians preferred the path of direct or indirect boycott, which led to the strengthening of distrust and pessimism toward the election process. The refusal of such reformist leaders to participate in the elections can significantly weaken the competitive environment and reduce the turnout to a minimum. It even appears as though, among the registered candidates, representatives of reformists are entirely absent. Nevertheless, the government media reported that 800 reformist candidates had filled out the application form to participate in the parliamentary elections at the initial stage of the registration process. Although there is no information about how many of those candidates were disqualified by the Council of Guardians, this figure itself leaves no room for doubt that the conservatives will definitely win the elections and form a government on their own.
The Kayhan newspaper, which is known for its close ties to conservative circles, accused the opposition of engaging in pre-election manipulation, writing that they are hiding information about the registered candidates of reformists from the public. Some fundamentalist politicians have claimed that reformist political parties are holding coalition discussions behind closed doors. Even a few months ago, allegations were put forward that there was a secret deal between the former president Hassan Rouhani and the former speaker of the parliament Ali Larijani. Although there is no concrete information yet on whether the aforementioned political figures will participate in the parliamentary elections as part of one coalition, it has already been confirmed that Hasan Rouhani will give the main priority to the elections for the Council of Experts. It is likely that his main opponent in the elections to that institution will be the current President Ebrahim Raisi. However, it is predicted that Larijani will be one of the main figures of the reformist-moderate wing in the upcoming parliamentary elections, and a number of other parties representing that camp will participate in the elections as part of the alliance that will be formed under his leadership. The Construction Party, which is considered the main political party of the moderate-centrist camp and was founded by former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, plans to join the elections independently. Although the Construction Party made ambitious pre-election statements, considering the results of the last elections, we can underestimate their chances of winning a significant percentage of the votes.
The upcoming elections are another test in terms of the continuation of the theocratic authority. According to information circulating in political circles, the 85-year-old Supreme Religious Leader Seyyed Ali Khamenei plans to hand over the post that he holds to one of his successors as soon as possible due to health problems. As the members of the Council of Experts, who will appoint the new religious leader, will be defined as a result of the elections to be held on March 1, 2024, Khamenei will first of all pay attention to the formation of the aforementioned institution from the ultra-conservative camp.
Another main point that concerns Khamenei is the ethnic tensions that have engulfed the country for more than a year and the ideological consequences created by the public dissatisfaction with the hijab. These trends, which are intensifying at the moment, pose a threat to the existence of the regime and put Khamenei in front of a big dilemma before the elections: should he take risks in order to strengthen his social support among the people and allow the parliament to be controlled by reformers, or should he allow the ideological crisis to deepen further by keeping the conservative wing in the dominant position in the legislature with traditional methods? The second scenario could further fuel distrust and antipathy towards the regime among the population, and right on the eve of a planned transition of religious power to one of the successors, posing a major worry for Khamenei. From the day the elections were announced, numerous statements by prominent representatives in the ultra-conservative camp, including Khamenei, urging the population to participate in the elections, strengthened the possibility of the first scenario. However, influential figures of the reformist movement subsequently voiced negative opinions about the transparency of the election process, and some reformists boycotted the elections, giving reason to predict that the reformists will remain in the minority in the 12th term of the parliament. As for the possibilities of the centrist-moderate parties sharing power in the parliament, there are some disagreements within this camp, but it can’t be ruled out that the regime will take certain steps for the benefit of centrist political forces in order to create an impression of electoral competition in the legislative body.
It is worth noting that the ongoing Israel-Hamas war may have some implications on the upcoming elections. Thus, if the war continues according to the scenario desired by Israel and if a new governance system is formed in Gaza under the patronage of the West, the trust of the ultra-right electorate towards the regime will surely be damaged. This expected shift in the views of the conservative voters may likely manifest itself at the results of the elections.