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The future is bright for hardliners in Iran

As the power of Iran's unelected establishment grows, the prospects of diplomacy dwindle.

Analysis | Middle East

Iran held its 11th parliamentary elections late last month, handing a resounding victory to hardline and conservative forces during perhaps Iran’s most tumultuous few months since the 2009 Green Movement demonstrations. The elections were held after months of recession resulting from economic sanctions, the brutal November 2019 government crackdown that left hundreds dead, Iran moving to the brink of war following the U.S. assassination of Qassem Soleimani, and the public outrage at the government’s attempt to cover up its involvement in a civilian plane downing. Adding to the country’s woes, news broke on the eve of the election that the new coronavirus had spread to the religious city of Qom. Despite efforts to contain the virus, people in Iran have become increasingly skeptical of the government’s response to the crisis and their ability to contain it.

In short, 2020 has so far been a litany of disasters for the Iranian people. To compound their misery, crisis after crisis has given conservatives and Iran’s unelected institutions the perfect opportunity to sideline voices of dissent, paving a path forward for conservatives to take power in the 2021 presidential election and control the succession of Iran’s next Supreme Leader.

Abysmally low turnout during last Friday’s election and the mass disqualification of moderates and reformists point to widespread disillusionment in the government’s ability to solve the country’s myriad of problems. With establishment forces putting their thumbs on the scale in favor of hardliners, Iranians should brace for a new level of securitization in the country as unelected institutions seem poised to implement their conservative agenda without obstacles in the years to come.

Hardliners win big with reformists decimated

According to data from the Interior Ministry, conservatives won 221 of the 290 seats in Iran’s legislative assembly, up from 83 in the last election in 2016. Only 20 reformists, which fell from 121 seats in 2016, will join the new parliament. Thirty-five independents were elected, 11 seats will have run-off elections in April, and the final five seats are guaranteed for the country's religious minorities.

Despite not having a single seat in Tehran in 2016, conservatives won all 30 seats, with former mayor and commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf topping the list. Hardliners also dominated major provinces such as Isfahan, Khuzestan, Mazandaran and several others. Now, Mr. Ghalibaf is expected to be the next parliamentary speaker and will use his newfound power to stymie President Rouhani’s more moderate agenda.

The rise of hardline forces in the Majlis will in all likelihood make Rouhani a lame-duck president for his last year in office. Iran’s Majlis may lack substantive tools to affect Iran’s foreign policy, but they will use the body’s bully pulpit to lambast President Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif’s perceived mismanagement of the country's diplomatic relations. However, the new conservative majority will be able to gridlock Rouhani’s domestic agenda, including all his legislation and annual budgets.

This major swing in favor of the conservatives is in stark contrast with the 2016 elections. In 2015, President Rouhani had just signed the Iran nuclear deal, which promised sanctions relief in exchange for limitations on Iran’s nuclear program. His coalition of moderates and reformists were on the rise, ushering in a moderate parliament in 2016 aligned with Rouhahi’s agenda.

After President Trump withdrew from the nuclear deal and unilaterally imposed crushing sanctions, their fortunes drastically changed. Iranian hardliners felt vindicated in their warnings that the West could not be trusted following President Trump’s decision and the killing of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani, leaving Rouhani as the scapegoat for a policy that has now soured within Iran’s political elite.

Growing power of the unelected establishment

The conservative’s comprehensive victory was in part a result of election engineering by Iran’s unelected institutions. Ninety sitting members of parliament were barred from running for reelection by the Guardian Council, or more than a third of the incumbents who were seeking to run. The disqualifications included three-quarters of the moderate coalition that backed Rouhani, as well as six of fifteen women candidates seeking reelection.

In conjunction with the country's tumultuous few months, many voters stayed home on election day in part because of the disqualifications. Despite extensive efforts from Iran’s establishment to increase voter turnout, voter turnout across the country was 42.5 percent — the lowest since the revolution. In Tehran, Iran’s capital and largest city, turnout was at a paltry 25 percent, plummeting from an average turnout of 50 percent in previous elections. Despite being the traditional bastion of the reformist movement, Tehran is now fully in the grip of conservative MPs.

Voter turnout in parliamentary elections has only fallen below the 60 percent threshold twice since 1980: in 2004, when many reformist voters stayed home amidst the repression of the reformist movement and a weakened reformist president, handing a sizeable majority of Parliament to conservatives MPs; and in 2008, following the 2005 presidential election that brought ultra-hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to power. In both these cases, low turnout helped the conservatives maintain power, culminating in the country’s international isolation, the suppression of the 2009 Green Movement, and exacerbation of the country’s rampant corruption. 

History looks set to repeat itself. The newly elected conservative parliament will most likely bolster hardliners in the 2021 contest for president and sway public policy debates away from engagement with the U.S. If the country’s economic issues and political stagnation continue, Iranians will feel justified in their abstention from the past election, solidifying the notion the system no longer works for them.

Much can change in Iran from now until then. But Iran’s general sense of disillusionment and hopelessness will most likely help bring a hardliner less inclined towards diplomacy to power and give greater license to Iran’s unelected institutions to further securitize Iran's political and cultural spheres.

Further consolidation of power within Iran’s establishment, including within the Supreme Leader’s office, would allow Ali Khamenei to better prepare for his eventual death and succession. With so many dissenting voices sidelined, Khamenei and his small cadre of clerics and supporters would be better positioned than ever to implant a successor of their choosing without any legitimate alternative or opposition.

Turnout in elections has always had peaks and troughs throughout the Islamic Republic's history. But this time seems different. Friday’s election seems to be part of a larger trend that may lead to the end of Iran’s quasi-electoral system and crystalize the country’s turn towards a more absolute form of authoritarianism that will only lessen the chances of peace with the West and exacerbate the woes of ordinary Iranians.

(Shutterstock/ Thomas Koch)
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