Iran’s electoral facade

A historic low turnout points to declining public interest amid uninspiring leadership choices.

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Iran’s parliamentary and Assembly of Experts election held on 1 March should not be seen as a democratic exercise where people express their will at the ballot box. As in many authoritarian countries, elections in Iran have long been used to legitimize the power and influence of the ruling elite.    

These elections come one year after Mahsa Jina Amini’s tragic death for improper veiling at the hands of Iran’s morality police – an event that sparked month long protests across the country. They also follow a brutal government crackdown, declining economic conditions and an uptick in executions. 

Rather than build back popular legitimacy through inclusive elections, the political establishment led by the aging 85-year-old Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has prioritized a further consolidation of conservative power across elected and unelected institutions to prepare for clerical succession.  

In an unsurprising outcome, these elections saw the lowest voter turnout in 45 years and a victory for hardline conservatives in both institutions. Amid calls for a boycott by women’s activists such as 2023 Nobel Prize winner Narges Mohammadi and even some in-country reformist politicians such as former President Muhammad Khatami (who himself did not vote) only 41 per cent of the eligible electorate participated. 

In Tehran province, voter turnout was about 24 per cent – another record low. These statistics point to a declining public interest amid uninspiring leadership choices in legitimizing the Iranian state.

Because turnout was almost as high as the 42.5 per cent result achieved in 2020…the Iranian leadership has hailed the results as a victory against Western pressure.  

Interestingly, the number of invalid or blank ballots is estimated to have been as high as 400,000 in Tehran alone, showing the extent of deliberate protest.

Iran’s populace is both sophisticated and cynical, aware that significant government vetting through the Guardian Council has narrowed the choices on offer and that neither Parliament nor the Assembly of Experts has the ability to improve or impact their daily lives. 

Results have not yet been finalized and many seats will be going for a runoff to be held in May. But because turnout was almost as high as the 42.5 per cent result achieved in 2020 parliamentary elections, the Iranian leadership has hailed the results as a victory against Western pressure.  

Voting times were extended in an effort to increase turnout. In a bid to show normalcy and stability, the BBC alongside a host of other news outlets were invited back to Tehran to report on the elections for the first time in years.

However, these statistics do not foreshadow a positive turnout for the more important presidential elections set to be held in 2025.

The Assembly and Parliament

The Assembly of Experts, tasked with electing the next Supreme Leader and supervising his office, has yet provide any insight over the forthcoming process to elect a successor to Khamenei or exert any oversight of the Leader’s role and activities.

Iran’s Parliament, meanwhile, has no independent legislative function and laws must be authenticated in accordance with Islamic law by the Guardian Council. Its accomplishments have therefore been minimal in recent years. 

In 2020 it introduced legislation that requires the government to accelerate its nuclear programme should sanctions not be lifted. In 2023 a controversial hijab law increased penalties for women not adhering to rigid dress codes.  

Elections to the Assembly of Experts, a body of 88 clerics, drew interest because of its role managing the succession to Khamenei.

Interestingly, despite the establishment’s efforts at maintaining conservative cohesion, competition among conservatives remains high. The parliamentary contest saw 15,000 candidates compete for 290 seats. 

Conservative factions

The election pitted three blocks of conservative factions against each other showcasing the divisions and extent of factionalism even among these groups.   

Those that did vote rebuked more pragmatic conservatives such as veteran Speaker of the Parliament Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf who came in forth in Tehran with 409,808 votes compared to his first place position in 2020 with 1.265 million votes. With this outcome, his position as speaker of the parliament is not guaranteed. 

Elections to the Assembly of Experts, a body of 88 clerics, drew interest because of its role managing the succession to Khamenei. To prevent contenders from emerging from within this body, former President Hassan Rouhani was barred from running. 

Incumbents such as Iran’s president Ebrahim Raisi, (who also serves as first deputy chairman) and Friday prayer leader Ahmad Khatami were elected without difficulty. Other important figures such as Hashem Hosseini Bushehri, Mohsen Qomi, Mohsen Araki and Abbas Ka’abi, all of whom sit on the supervisory board of the Assembly, were also reelected.  

In trying to coax the public out to vote, Khamenei himself stated ‘Elections are the main pillar of the Islamic Republic.’ 

Sadeq Larijani, a former head of the judiciary and the expediency council, was surprisingly not voted back into the body. With no public discussion on succession plans or potential candidates, this body is expected to select one of its own to follow in Khamenei’s footsteps.  

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In trying to coax the public out to vote, Khamenei himself stated ‘Elections are the main pillar of the Islamic Republic.’ Yet, four decades on from the Iranian revolution which pledged to achieve ‘freedom, independence and an Islamic Republic’ it is clear that the system and its leadership has not managed to deliver on any of these promises or principles.

Through protests, be it at the ballot box or on the streets around the country, it is clear that the Islamic and republican foundations have fractured and are unable to inspire public support for the politics of today or for what lies ahead.