What to watch for in Iran’s parliamentary elections

Commentary | January 20, 2012

EWI’s Raymond E. Karam examines politics in Iran as its March 2 elections draw near. The elections for Iran’s parliament, known as the National Consultative Assembly of Iran or the Majles, make for a lively political season amidst Iran’s confrontation with the United States and the European Union over sanctions and the Strait of Hormuz.

Election activities began in December as Iran's Election Commission announced that the Ministry of Interior established election headquarters in all 31 provinces. The key dates for the elections are:

  • December 24, 2011: The candidate registration period began.
  • December 30, 2011: The registration period ended.
  • January 2012: The Guardian Council reviews the credentials of all candidates, a process that usually takes about a month.
  • Late January or early February, 2012: The final list of eligible candidates—and disqualified candidates—should be released. In the past, the majority of candidates have been disqualified for failing to meet vague criteria.
  • February 22, 2012: The official campaign period begins and lasts eight days.
  • February 29, 2012: The official campaign ends.
  • March 2, 2012: Election Day.

‘Sensitive’ elections

Iran is set for what its senior officials have described as "the most sensitive" elections in the history of the Islamic Republic, amid economic and political discontent at home and fears of a major confrontation with the ‘West’ over its nuclear program.

The authorities have publicly acknowledged the challenges they face. The supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has warned that the elections could pose a risk to the country's security, and he has appealed for national unity. “To some extent, elections have always been a challenging issue for our country,” he admitted. He asked people “to be careful that this challenge does not hurt the country's security.”

More than 5,000 candidates have put their names forward for parliamentary elections in March, the first national vote since the 2009 disputed presidential poll when popular uprisings known as the Green Movement challenged the results.

Managing the elections

Two bodies are charged with managing and administering election-related activities in Iran:

The Guardian Council has a broad supervisory role. It vets all candidates, monitors the voting process and certifies the election results.

The Ministry of Interior implements election operations under the council's authority. It is responsible for the conduct of elections, including establishing and operating polling stations, administering the vote and tabulating the results.

Iran's electoral infrastructure has technically not changed much since the 1979 revolution, but in practice the role of the Guardian Council has increasingly marginalized the Ministry of Interior. The 12-man council, composed of religious and legal experts, has emerged as the main arbiter of election outcomes in two ways:

First, the council has extended its powers to interpret the constitution to include supervising all stages of the elections, including the approval and rejection of candidates.

Second, the council has transformed its temporary supervisory offices staffed with volunteers into permanent offices in every county across the country. Today, Iran has more than 384 Guardian Council supervisory offices operating year-round with full-time staff members. Concurrently, the council has enjoyed an astronomical budget growth from $480,000 in 2000 to $25 million in 2011. The Guardian Council, dominated by conservatives, has thus morphed into the most powerful and far-reaching electoral management body in Iran.

Conservative infighting and competing factions

Over the past three decades, relations between the Guardian Council and the Ministry of Interior have fluctuated. Occasionally, the two bodies have had common interests, but at other times they have been controlled by competing factions. Since its inception, the council has been tied to conservative factions. The Interior Ministry, however, has changed hands as part of the executive branch of government.

During the 2004 Majles elections, the conservative-dominated Guardian Council and the reformist-controlled Ministry of Interior were at daggers drawn, however the 2008 Majles elections took place at a time that both institutions were under conservative control. The upcoming 2012 Majles elections are different: Although conservative factions control both the ministry and the council, their rivalries have turned the process into political fratricide.

Conservative factions with significant differences have generally melded into broad coalitions during electoral events to maximize their share of the votes. At the onset of the 2009 presidential election, competing conservative factions united against the reformists. But following the election, brewing tensions over President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's long-term political agenda re-emerged. A public rift between Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and Ahmadinejad erupted in the spring of 2011 and deepened conflict among conservatives. The president's staunchest conservative supporters quickly turned into vocal critics. The president's associates were charged with corruption and embezzlement and publicly dubbed political “deviants.”

Revelations about Iran's largest incidents of bank embezzlement, scandals over corruption in the automotive industry, and the alleged plundering of social security pensions fueled the conservatives' war against Ahmadinejad. Members of parliament have repeatedly threatened to summon the president for questioning, and some have even proposed to impeach him.

In late 2011, Ahmadinejad, seeking to solidify his own political constituency, fought back by threatening opponents with revelations about their own misconduct, and so far, the Interior Ministry, headed by Mostafa Mohammad Najjar, a former Revolutionary Guard close to Ahmadinejad, has blocked at least 33 MPs from running in the elections, although many of them are currently serving in the parliament. Ali Motahari, a conservative MP whose father, Ayatollah Morteza Motahari, was among the key founders of the Islamic Republic, is among those on the blacklist. As an outspoken critic of the government's political and economic policies, Motahari was the driving force behind an impeachment motion against Ahmadinejad.

The role of reformists

As the election date approaches, the issue of participation is also gaining prominence. While in the past, calls to boycott elections were mainly led by the Iranian diaspora community, now, for the first time in the history of the Islamic Republic, the leaders of the reformist groups, including former president Mohammad Khatami, 2009 presidential challengers Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, and Mohammad Mousavi Khoeiniha, the secretary general of the reformist Association of Combatant Clerics, are emphasizing the ineffectiveness of participation in the polls.

The opposition Green Movement had announced earlier that it would only consider participating if its leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi were released from house arrest, but the authorities have remained reluctant to do so. The Fars News Agency, which is close to the Revolutionary Guard, announced that more than 1,200 reformists had put their names forward for the elections. Independent observers, however, questioned the claims, arguing that the regime has encouraged many of its own candidates to register as reformists in an attempt to undermine any boycott.

The issue of participation, along with the competition among disparate conservative factions is likely to make these elections more interesting or contentious than originally expected.

Raymond Karam is a program assistant for EWI's Regional Security Initiative.