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Iran's Parliamentary Elections: Winners And Losers

A voter fills out her ballot in the parliamentary elections as a soldier guards a polling station in Tehran, February 21, 2020
A voter fills out her ballot in the parliamentary elections as a soldier guards a polling station in Tehran, February 21, 2020

The Islamic Republic of Iran held a very special sort of parliamentary elections on February 21, that twisted its own established norms of power-sharing among insiders.

It was special from many perspectives. It was supposed to change Iran's political landscape and it did. It was going to help the regime rid itself of its toothless left wing and hand over part of political power to the hawks, many of them young men never heard of in the West.

It was to pave the way for sending off the country's last so-called moderate president and usher in a hawkish politician, who they hope will be capable of confronting U.S. President Donald Trump and his administration who have made life hard for the Islamic Republic.

The Majles election was also supposed to facilitate a review of the country's Constitution to pave the way for a smooth succession after Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei while he is still in good shape to supervise the transition. Whether this is feasible or not, considering the new parliament's skinny power base, is yet another story.

Having all that in mind, Friday's election has already changed the scene although in an almost unprecedented development, the government has still not announced any figures on the turnout. However, there is every indication the results are close to extremely pessimistic poll results about people’s negative sentiments and the government’s legitimacy published days before the elections.

Early results for Tehran and established figures for the provinces show an indisputable and overwhelming victory for Iran's conservatives. If you ask the winners, some like former hardliner Culture Minister Mostafa Mirsalim might call himself a traditional conservative, others such as the former Mayor of Tehran Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf may like to be called a neo-conservative, and still others such as the Paydari Front Leader Morteza Aqa-Tehrani have already been labelled as ultraconservatives.

Art least 15 former cabinet ministers and provincial governors close to former ultraconservative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's have also won in the elections. These include Habibollah Dahmardeh, Ebrahim Azizi, Abdolreza Mesri, Hamid Reza Hajibabai, and Ali Nikzad.

However, except for a dozen low-key reformists in small towns and a dozen or two independents, everyone else is a conservative of some sort. A rose is a rose by any name.

A few weeks into the term of the new Majles next summer, most independents will anyhow lean toward one of the conservative factions as it has been the case before.

The biggest loser in this election was Iran's once popular reform camp. Although its members said they might not take part in the elections in protest to widespread disqualification of prominent reformists, they ended up offering two lists, with their number one-man, Majid Ansari, a former MP and Chief Prison Warden failing to get a seat in the capital. This was the biggest defeat for Iran's reformists although some analysts doubt their capability to bring about any change.

The reformists poor performance which was marked by inaction and at times the similarity between their politics and that of hardliner conservatives, led to disillusionment among voters. The poor performance of President Hassan Rouhani and his administration who were backed by the reform camp also disappointed many, including some within the reform camp.

Rouhani knows that he will most certainly come under attack by hardliners in the new Majles who would do everything to further discredit him. Some of the new MPs had promised during their campaign to give Rouhani a hard time and blamed him for all the problems of the country.

Ayatollah Khamenei is unlikely to allow Rouhani's impeachment or ouster, but the Majles will have a free hand in exerting pressure on him and using him as scapegoat for everything that has gone wrong.

But the biggest loss of all is the political system's social capital. The low turnout, due to a near total loss of public belief and hope about the system’s ability to change itself, can only be blamed on factors such as the Coronavirus in small measure.

Long before Coronavirus, a poll conducted by academics in Tehran between January 30 and February 5 with more than 43,000 people taking part, determined that 81% of respondents were not planning to vote in the February 21 elections. Meanwhile, 93% of those who had voted for Hassan Rouhani in the 2017 Presidential election said they will not vote. Some 69% said the cause of Iran's problems were "the government's policies."

Accurate turnout figures are unlikely to come out anytime soon, but the actual turnout was perhaps slightly better than earlier polling indicated.

Whatever the figures may say, the results marked a victory for Qalibaf, Mirsalim and Aqa-Tehrani and they badly needed it after their resounding defeats in previous Presidential and Majles elections. The latter, a cleric who has spent several years in New York as the Imam of the Islamic Republic's mosque, (Yes, there is an IRI mosque in New York). When a rival politician asked about his U.S. Green Card, he said: "It's none of your business."

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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.