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Start of Iran's Election Campaign Marked By Public Indifference, Disunity Among Conservatives

ٍElection posters in Tehran. Candidates are required to display their posters only in designated areas. February 13, 2020.
ٍElection posters in Tehran. Candidates are required to display their posters only in designated areas. February 13, 2020.

Campaigning for the February 21 parliamentary elections in Iran started on Thursday, February 13. However, there seems to be very little campaign activity in progress, at least on the first day of an election, which seems to attract little public attention.

Although there are over 7,000 candidates approved by the watchdogs to run for the parliament (Majles), there is very little competition outside Iran's conservative camp, which seems to be on tack to get the lion's share of seats. Most prominent reformist candidates have been disqualified by the hardliner dominated Guardian Council.

Nevertheless, state-owned media outlets have been trying to pretend there is an election rigor vibrating in Iran. Semi-official news agency ISNA, in its election report on Thursday listed 123 candidates competing in Shiraz for the city's four seats.

But media outlets in general have dedicated their front-page headlines and photos to the news of heavy snowfall across Iran, with minimal coverage of news about the parliamentary election.

Normally at this time, walls and billboards in all major cities should have been covered by posters and messages of candidates heralding promises. In Tehran at least, most spaces are still covered with the images of former mayor Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf who started his campaign months before the official date. Other pictures and posters may appear on the walls next week though.

A series of dramatic events including the protests in November during which up to 1500 Iranians were shot to death by security forces, the targeted killing of Qods Force Commander Qassem Soleimani in a U.S. drone attack in Baghdad, and the downing of a passenger aircraft by IRGC missiles killing 176 mainly young men and women, left little voter trust in the Islamic Republic and belief in elections controlled by hardliners.

Another major factor in weakening public interest in this election is shadow cast on the authority of the parliament by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei who repeatedly overruled the legislative process and the legislature. He ordered the deployment of military forces to Syria and Yemen without consulting the Majles. He also created non-elected bodies to decide on matters such as the annual budget and gasoline prices, annoying the people and their representatives alike, bringing about despair and disillusionment about the role of the Majles.

In the meantime, the poor performance of reformist and moderate lawmakers in the current Majles, and President Hassan Rouhani’s administration they supported, have further damaged the legitimacy of the parliament.

The latest blow to the legislature came from the Guardian Council, which disqualified many reformists including 90 incumbent MPs. The extent of the political massacre was so great that even President Rouhani was forced to say there is no competition in the elections, as vetting by the Guardian Council has left only candidates from the conservative camp.

However, things have not gone smoothly within the conservative camp as more than six months of efforts by a Principlist Coalition Council led by Kahmenei's relative and confidant Gholam Ali Haddad Adel failed to bring about unity among conservative groups that are allowed to have their candidates run for the Majles.

In one of the latest signs of division among conservatives, when the Coalition Council announced a list of 30 candidates for Tehran, the ultraconservative Paydari Front whose spiritual leader is controversial cleric Mohammad Taqi Mesbah Yazdi, went its separate way and presented another list with some shared names with the Coalition's list.

An even worse reaction came from Qalibaf whose name and picture were on top of the Coalition's list. He did not like the combination of political figures on the list, saying that had a more economically like-minded group in mind. Now, he is likely to come up with yet another list.

Others, including hardliner State TV Talk show host Vahid Yaminpour who were not chosen to be on the Coalition Council's list, have said they would still run independently.

In all, if there is any competition, it is likely to be among the same camp: the conservatives. All forecasts since last year indicate a landslide conservative victory. But the next Majles will need a lot of time before it can overcome is internal disputes and make major decisions.

The biggest implication of a weakened parliament dominated by his ardent supporters is for Ayatollah Khamenei. With a conservative Majles that is likely to be followed by the election of a conservative President in June 2021, Khamenei is more likely to get all the blames for the failures of the Islamic Republic while pressures from outside the country and mounting demands from within seem to become more daunting than ever in the next year and beyond.

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    Behrouz Turani

    Behrouz Turani is a British-Iranian writer and journalist as well as a consultant on Iran's political dynamics and the Iranian media landscape.