The Middle East Channel

On the sidelines of Iran’s election

On the sidelines of Iran’s election

Former President Mohammad Khatami made a statement last December about the upcoming parliamentary elections in Iran, "When all the signs indicate that we should not participate in the elections, participation will be meaningless."

Now, just hours before the polls open on March 2, Khatami and many other Iranians for the first time since the 1979 Islamic Revolution will stage a boycott. This is the only election in which a major political faction will remain on the sidelines. All the "signs," as Khatami put it, are there — the only candidates allowed to compete are largely from three conservative factions among the regime’s shrinking cast of political elites. All others were banned from running candidates.

But what is more significant than the rigged vetting process is what the election sadly reveals for many — a changed Iran. Gone is the euphoria that energized millions of Iranians before past presidential elections in 1997 and 2009 and parliamentary elections in 2000. Instead, this week’s elections will take place under the watchful eyes of 50,000 election "monitors" nationwide, thousands of basij fighters designated just for Tehran, and the heaviest police presence since after the disputed presidential election of 2009.

The regime is taking no chances the election will turn into a standoff between the opposition and the security forces or become a national expression of all the pressures Iranians face from the state’s economic mismanagement to sanctions and the looming threat of war with Israel. Security officials have repeatedly warned the population ahead of the election that no protests will be tolerated.

The scripted election also illustrates a political realignment that has occurred since 2009 and the consolidation of power around Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. In addition to ensuring the reformists’ — and even quasi-reformists, such as Hashemi Rafsanjani — departure from politics, Khamenei’s loyalists have also paved the way for the demise of the "deviant" faction, as it is called, which represents President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Khamenei wants to cleanse the next parliament of Ahmadinejad supporters who have fought on the president’s behalf over the last two years in a fierce battle between Ahmadinejad and Khamenei — one in which the president lost out. Ending this faction’s political career will also guarantee that no Ahmadinejad loyalist will have enough support inside the regime to run in the next presidential election in 2013.

After this election, assuming Khamenei will succeed in eliminating Ahmadinejad’s faction, only two political trends will remain relevant inside the political system. One is the conservative traditionalists who are members of the old guard, such as Parliamentary Speaker Ali Larijani. The other is the far right, comprised of hardliners, grouped around Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi, an aging revolutionary figure who proclaims to be committed to the ideological purity of the Islamic republic, at last as he interprets it.  

In order to achieve a complete electoral victory, the regime faces a significant challenge the morning after. There is likely to be a low voter turnout, particularly in large cities such as Tehran. And even if the voter turnout is significantly higher in rural areas, as is often the case, it is urban public opinion that gives the regime a seal of approval in the eyes of the West. Historically, the regime has tried to convince the world and its domestic audience at home that large participation in elections demonstrates Iranians’ belief in the system and the legitimacy of the regime. Proving the worthiness to govern is more important to Khamenei now than ever as Western nations continue to impose sanctions on Iran and place it in the category of a rogue state.

With the reformists’ boycotting and a general malaise hovering over the country, it appears likely the regime will have to figure out how to deal with a poor showing at the polls. If officials try to inflate the voter turnout, they could face humiliation. No doubt the untruths will be played out on opposition websites and social networking sites.

The Coordination Council of the Green Path of Hope, the political group close to Mir Hossein Moussavi, the Green movement leader, issued a warning to the public, "The authorities are trying to use all their propaganda, political security and police forces to force the people into participating in the elections," in order to avoid a low voter turnout.

From the regime’s perspective, elections have been unkind. In 1997, Khatami, a figure who opened Iran to the West in ways that rattled the conservatives and freed society, albeit it so briefly, from the chains of repression, was allowed to run for president only because Khamenei and his loyalists were convinced he would never win. In 2009, the regime helped return Ahmadinejad to the presidency only to then live through three years of contention, instability, and international humiliation. This time, there is no doubt little will be left to chance.

In fact, as time goes on, Khamenei is tolerating less and less any challenge to what is quickly becoming authoritarian rule. Recently, he reportedly warned the Assembly of Experts, the only body which maintains the right to remove the Supreme Leader, that he has ultimate power over the Assembly and the Assembly has the right only to make a general assessment of his leadership. The Assembly of Experts, a council of 86 clerics popularly elected to eight-year terms, elects the supreme leader from their ranks, according to Article 107 of the 1979 Constitution.

If Khamenei has his way, this parliamentary election could complete his marginalization of most of his foes and seal the conservatives’ hold over nearly all branches of the state for the foreseeable future.

Geneive Abdo is the director of the Iran program at The Century Foundation. Reza Akbari, research associate for the program, contributed to this article.