The final round of Iran's parliamentary elections on Friday provides a gauge for Iranians' current interest in change and the country's emphasis going forward.
Iran's political process, like most aspects of its government, society, and economic life, is tightly controlled by the nation's Shiite clerics, but an election gives Iranians a chance to register their satisfaction with the recent shift toward increased world engagement in exchange for economic opportunity.
"Rouhani says that he cares; it's better than nothing," Azita, a recently graduated student in Tehran, told The Christian Science Monitor during the first round of election. "But if you ask Iranians what they will be doing in the next five years, they can't answer, because they don't know what will happen tomorrow."
The first round of voting showed unexpectedly high support for centrist President Hassan Rouhani and his willingness to engage with the world. Moderate and reformist candidates contended with mass disqualifications and a media hold on top leaders, but still made a surprisingly good showing in parliament, the Monitor reported.
"The hard-liners called them every name they could think of – traitors, followers of the British, seditionists. The very clear message they sent was, 'Give up hope, this is our game,'" a veteran political analyst who asked not to be named told the Monitor in late February, after the first round of elections. "Against all the odds, moderates and reformists orchestrated unity out of differences, something Iran has been missing for a long time."
Iran's late-February election gave Iran's moderate-reformist coalition a surprising boost. They took all 30 of Tehran's parliamentary seats, and a 2-to-1 advantage in the rest of the 290-seat Parliament. The second and final round of run-off voting on Friday decides the fate of the remaining 59 seats.
Even landslide elections may yield only slight shifts, says Roby Barrett, a scholar with the Middle East Institute in Washington, D.C., because all candidates on the ballot must be approved by the regime. Even the reform candidates and moderates who back Mr. Rouhani must work within the system approved by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and other conservatives.
Shortly before this election cycle began, the government's hard-line Guardian Council disqualified half the prospective candidates from running, including 99 percent of 3,000 reformist candidates.
"The people are voting for change, but the people they are voting for are not going to change anything because the whole group is approved by the regime," Dr. Barrett says. "Even if you're a reformist, you're voting for someone who has basically been picked by the ultra-conservatives to run."
Even a tightly held regime can only push its people so far, however, so elections provide a useful gauge for public opinion and can shift the needle on policy. For this reason, Iran's establishment equates voting with religious duty, continuing to defend the practice with vigorous get-out-the-vote campaigns even when voters are protesting the violent suppressions of previous elections, Scott Peterson wrote for The Christian Science Monitor:
Elections in Iran tap into a fundamental tension – denoted by the title "Islamic Republic" itself – between religious authorities with absolute power and the republican aspect of elected officials. Since the 1979 revolution, high voter turnout has equated to regime legitimacy.
Even the more moderate candidates who back Rouhani worry about voter turn-out, because their supporters have traditionally been more to boycott elections, a common protest tactic in the Middle East.
"While reformist heavyweights, including former President Mohammad Khatami, are actively urging a big voter turnout, the outcome of the second round is more politically symbolic than a clue to the direction of Iranian domestic politics," wrote Alex Vatanka, a senior fellow with the Middle East Institute, wrote in a briefing this week.
The election registers how willing the Iranian people are in becoming involved with politics, and, if the second round follows the first, suggests they prefer Rouhani's strategy of increased diplomacy in exchange for decreased economic sanctions.
"It's not change of the system, it's change of the emphasis in the system," Barrett says. "[Khamenei] will support Rouhani just as far as he thinks he needs to ... but he is not going to change overall Iranian policy because no matter who gets elected, they're out of [a list of] conservatives who were approved by the regime."