Iran election briefing: Islamic Republic's fundamental tensions laid bare

In the run-up to late February elections for parliament and a body that could pick the next supreme leader, the battles parallel the divide between religious and electoral power.

Raheb Homavandi/TIMA/Reuters/File
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani waves as he stands next to a portrait of Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, after he registered for February's election of the Assembly of Experts, the clerical body that chooses the supreme leader, at Interior Ministry in Tehran, Iran, December 21, 2015.

Iranians go to the polls on Feb. 26, in elections that could determine the shape of the nation’s politics, foreign policy, and even its revolutionary outlook for the next decade and beyond.

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.

This week the clash between these sources of authority – in some ways mirroring the hard-liners’ political battle against moderates and reformists – spilled into the open after the hard-line Guardian Council disqualified more than half of 12,000 would-be candidates. Of 3,000 reformists, 99 percent were rejected.

“It is called the house of the nation, not the house of one faction,” President Hassan Rouhani, a centrist, said Thursday, objecting to the mass disqualifications.

Parliament had to “belong to all people and reflect the realities of the nation,” said Mr. Rouhani. “If one faction is represented in the elections and another is not, then why are we holding elections?”

Herein some election basics:

Q:  What will be decided on Election Day?

Two parallel elections will take place on Feb. 26. The first is to elect a new 290-seat parliament, which has been dominated by hard-line politicians since 2012. The vote that year was shunned by reformists, who have been largely sidelined since the disputed 2009 presidential election that spurred weeks of violent protests.

Mr. Rouhani was elected in 2013 in a landslide, promising to resolve the nuclear dispute, lift sanctions, reengage with the West, and ease social restrictions. His opponents said his victory risked bringing “sedition” back to Iran. The mass disqualifications by the Guardian Council – which disproportionately target reformists – appear to be a bid to limit Rouhani’s ability to carry out his agenda and get a popular bounce from last July's nuclear deal with the West.

The second election is for the 88-member Assembly of Experts, a clerical panel that supervises the supreme leader’s work and in theory has the power to replace him. Sitting an eight-year term, this body could decide who will succeed Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who is 76 years old. 

Turnout to elect members of this body has traditionally been low, but that is changing. Rouhani and former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani have put their names forward for reelection. Running for the first time is Hassan Khomeini – grandson of the revolutionary founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini – who has often been attacked by hardliners for his moderate views.

Why does voter turnout matter?

Voting has often been declared a “religious duty” and officials mount a systematic get-out-the-vote campaign.

A voter who casts their ballot “plays his role in safeguarding the revolution,” Mr. Khamenei said this month. The supreme leader also echoed a line he first used in 2013, when he appealed to nationalist feelings in a bid to convince millions of Iranians disillusioned with the disputed 2009 election – protesters’ signs read “Where is my vote?” – to take part again.

“Even those who do not agree with the Islamic Republic should take part in our elections,” said Khamenei. “Some people might not agree with me, and nothing is wrong with this, but the elections do not belong to the leadership: they belong to Islamic Iran.”

Rouhani played to this theme Thursday in his challenge to the mass disqualifications. Candidates can appeal until Feb. 5, and the president has assigned top officials to work on the case.

He noted that religious minorities who number just 10,000 or 20,000 people had guaranteed seats in parliament and asked, “should we ignore” one faction – the reformists – whose numbers have reached 10 million?

“Let’s not make people hopeless, and [let us] all try to increase people’s hope and excitement,” said Rouhani, saying the vote was a “divine examination” and invoking the leader’s desire for “a vibrant and lively elections with long lines at the ballot boxes.”

Who approves and disqualifies potential candidates?

The powerful Guardian Council is led by Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, a hard-liner who years ago told Iranians: “Don’t be fooled.… Leave democracy alone.” Most of the 60 percent of prospective candidates who were disqualified were dropped after the second of three rounds of vetting.

Khamenei appeared to approve of the mass expulsions, qualifying his earlier statement for all Iranian to take part. “I said those who do not believe in the regime, should vote. I didn’t say they should be sent [to enter] the parliament,” he said Wednesday.

“No place in the world,” he added, including the US, allows people who disagree with the establishment “into the centers of decision-making.”

When Rouhani pushed back the next day, he received support from clerics such as Ayatollah Kazem Nourmofidi, a member of the Assembly of Experts. The disqualification of those who believe in the Islamic Republic, he said, “will create a deep rift between real believers of our system and the establishment.”

But hard-liners were ready. The Tehran Friday prayer leader, Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami, today defended the mass disqualifications and said some officials “constantly talk about the law” only when it serves their interests.

“The Guardian Council will not retreat because of smear campaigns,” Mr. Khatami said Friday from the pulpit. “When the atmosphere becomes murky, it becomes context for sedition, then who would manage sedition?” 

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