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The Legitimacy Crisis and Upcoming Parliamentary Elections in Iran

With reformers unpopular, low voter turn out in next month's parliamentary elections could mean a big win for conservatives.

Analysis | Middle East

The legitimacy crisis faced by the political establishment in Iran in the wake of the accidental shoot down of the Ukrainian civilian airliner is likely to reduce voter turnout in February’s parliamentary elections and possibly provoke more of the kind of unrest that has shaken the country over the past few months.

Already, in December 2017, nation-wide protests marked a turning point in relations between the people and government, but demonstrations since then have focused on the entire political system. The urban poor, who have always been the main supporters of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, formed the base of the unrest which flared again in mid-November 2019 after gasoline prices were tripled overnight before the protests were suppressed, violently in many cases, by a government crackdown.

Two stormy weeks at the start of 2020 began with the assassination in Baghdad by the United States of Major General Qassem Soleimani and ended a week of peaceful but politically charged demonstrations following the downing of the plane which killed all 176 people aboard. Parliamentary elections are scheduled in just over three weeks and are certain to be affected by the recent events.

According to official statistics, average voter turnout for all ten previous parliamentary elections is 61 percent. The lowest turnout was during the eighth parliamentary elections in February 2008, registering at 51 percent. Forecasts for the upcoming elections, however, predict an even greater reduction in voter turnout given the recent protests, as well as the general discontent over corruption and the deteriorating economic situation.

What do the conservatives say?

While regime conservatives (Principlists) have always benefited most from low turnout, they are hoping that the unprecedented participation of millions of people who took to the streets to mourn Soleimani after his death shows that the regime retains its popular base in ways that will pay off at the polls. Their main concern at the moment is to somehow forge a single list from the large numbers of candidates in their camp, who have been approved by the relevant authorities to run. Failure to put together a unified list by election time could reduce their chances of claiming a solid majority in the Majles when the ballots are counted.

But there are also those conservatives who are clearly concerned about what they recognize as the widening gap between the people and the establishment. Just two days before Soleimani’s assassination, more than 100 conservative professors and students signed an open letter to the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, criticizing his use of the term “villains” to describe the November 2019 protesters. They warned that, unless the Islamic Republic brought about fundamental structural changes and reviewed its current strategic policies, the protests will come back to haunt it on a larger scale and undermine its entire legitimacy, culminating in its overthrow or collapse.

That such a letter was signed by prominent conservatives undoubtedly indicates the depth of the system's legitimacy crisis. “The danger has not been felt by the establishment yet, and many officials speak and behave as if the country is not facing a crisis,” warned Ahmad Tavakoli, a member of the Principlist-dominated Expediency Council.

What do the reformists want?

The reformist camp, on the other hand, has a different stance. Many of their well-known figures have so far failed to register in the elections, and many others have been disqualified from running by executive committees and election-monitoring committees. Reformist leaders are trying to persuade the government to aggressively challenge the disqualifications and endorse a joint slate of reformists and moderates.

But, even if their efforts succeed, as urged by President Hassan Rouhani, among others, it is questionable whether it would substantially boost the chances of a big voter turnout, as the popular protests since December 2017 have targeted all political factions. Moreover, the government is currently in the hands of moderates who are close to the reformists, and people blame the poor economic conditions on their performance.

Indeed, some prominent political activists who have consistently encouraged voter participation, such as Tehran University Professor Sadegh Zibakalam, in the past, have said they will boycott the polls this year.

Abbas Abdi, a leading reformist journalist and political analyst, has said the election is effectively over for the reformists due to the widespread disqualifications and the lack of power that parliament exerts over the broader system. “The reformists must continue their way, not through elections, but through public and social movements,” he urged earlier this month.

Will Rouhani resign?

Calls for Rouhani to resign were first heard after the December 2017 protests and subsequently propagated by conservatives until Khamenei intervened and ruled out such a course. It was the reformists, however, who brought up Rouhani’s possible resignation again last spring.

Reformist strategist Saeed Hajjarian was the first to suggest that the government should resign in favor of new elections if Khamenei rejects its recommendation for a “uniform ruling system” that would end the “dual” system that empowers agencies under the Supreme Leader’s sole authority. After the November 2019 disturbances, Abdi argued that the government was effectively stymied in its efforts to revive the economy and resolve its foreign policy problems. Given the loss of public confidence demonstrated by the unrest, according to Abdi, Rouhani should resign and call for new elections for both president and parliament. If his resignation was rejected, then he should be given a free hand to pursue his objectives.

But the conservatives overwhelmingly opposed the idea, arguing that it was an Israeli plan to destabilize Iran by leaving it without an effective government similar to the situations in Lebanon and Iraq. “The plan is to create chaos and escalate violence in the country and, of course, prepare the public for future negotiations,” warned hard-line newspaper, Kayhan.

Speculation about Rouhani’s resignation was also heard after the plane debacle about which the military officials responsible kept Rouhani in the dark for three days. Although his resignation is more plausible than that of Khamenei, as demanded by the protesters in their recent slogans since the airliner shoot down, it is still regarded as very unlikely given Rouhani’s apparent aspirations for higher office.

What will happen in February?

As there are no international or impartial observers in the elections in Iran, the statistics provided by the government on the extent of public participation cannot be trusted. Foreign journalists can only be present in designated areas where the establishment can easily bring its own forces to the polling stations to make them look crowded.

With just over three weeks to go, uncertainty surrounds the elections. Apathy and resignation could rule the day with a low turnout and a conservative victory. If, on the other hand, the relevant authorities reverse their disqualification of reformist candidates, one could yet see a major rallying to the polls, similar to that in 2013 that brought Rouhani to the presidency, in hopes that reformists will receive a renewed mandate that could break ongoing paralysis. But if there is a widespread call in the coming days for people to take part in peaceful protests on the streets on election day, then a potentially volatile referendum between pro-regime forces at the ballot box and the opposition on the streets could take shape.

Anti-U.S. protest in Tehran, November 2018
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