On 21 February Iranians voted in the Republic’s eleventh parliamentary elections, yielding a landslide victory for conservatives in the 290-Seat majlis. However, the country saw its lowest turn-out since the 1979 Revolution with ballot boxes being boycotted by reformists. The mass disqualification of reformists and incumbents, paired with growing domestic dissatisfaction towards the governing regime in the aftermath of the shooting down of Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 in January, and the violent crackdown of last November’s protests, has resulted in a disenchanted electorate.
“Nothing is going to change with or without us voting…We’re protesting…by not participating in the elections.”
The disqualification of reformists was completely legal as per the Iranian vetting system. The Guardian Council, consisting of twelve religious jurists, assesses proposed candidates on their loyalty to the Islamic Republic and their religiosity, and can ultimately bar them from standing. Of the fifteen thousand who applied to run in this election, more than seven thousand were disqualified. This included the disqualification of ninety percent of the reformist nominees. This meant that the election was a battle between conservative and ultra-conservative candidates, leaving moderate and reformist voters feeling disenfranchised.
Anger with the political system resulted in calls to boycott the elections, with prominent Iranians including imprisoned activist Narges Mohammadi and former minister Mostafa Tajzadeh asking people not to vote. Yet the most striking motivator for boycotting was the sense of powerlessness people felt to be able to vote for change. “Nothing is going to change with or without us voting. [The ruling regime] decided everything for the country, without considering the parliament, so it’s a joke to even have a parliament. We’re protesting against them by not participating in the elections,” Mehdi, a young Tehrani business owner, told CNBC. Many in Iran viewed the elections less as being a chance to influence government policy, than as a public relations stunt legitimising the Islamic Republic – a public relations stunt they didn’t want to participate in.
Several crises in Iran have soured opinions of the Guardian Council’s image, particularly amongst the middle class and the educated young. The downing of Flight 752 on 8 January killing all passengers (including fifteen children) followed government denials enraged Iranians. Coming not long after the brutal crackdown on protests in November in response to a rise in fuel prices, the government’s failure to respond adequately to these domestic issues has further prevented voters from being able to support the regime.
Iran is a country deeply wrapped up in a conflict between conservatism and modernism, with both sides wanting their worldview to determine the future direction of the country. However, with a conservative ruling elite, reformists have struggled to gain a foothold in the political system and to influence policy, allowing the regime to pursue hard-line methods of governance. The Iranian Students Polling Agency surveyed Tehranis and showed that half of the people did not trust that the election would be fair, with only a quarter saying that they would vote.
“This vote is significant because it commences the hard-line takeover of Iran’s elected institutions,” says Sanam Vakil, deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa program at Chatham House in London. And with presidential elections on the horizon, the country is likely to soon have an ultra-conservative as its head of government, leading to further dismay amongst reformists and greater reluctance of the electorate to engage in suffrage.
Originally published May 2020 in The SOAS Spirit