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Iranian MPs debate parliamentary elections at provincial level

Iranian parliamentarians are debating legislation that could see parliamentary elections held at provincial levels, provided that the Guardian Council won’t strike down the idea yet again.
An Iranian woman fills in her ballot during elections for the parliament and a leadership body called the Assembly of Experts, which has the power to appoint and dismiss the supreme leader, in Tehran February 26, 2016. REUTERS/Raheb Homavandi/TIMA  ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY.  - GF10000325038

As Iran returns to business after the Nowruz holidays, lawmakers are resuming discussions on a controversial draft motion that has the potential to alter parliamentary politics.  

The proposed bill, which was first brought to the floor by 120 parliamentarians last November, calls for parliamentary elections to be held at provincial levels. At present, constituencies commonly cover towns and cities. The draft motion proposes that individuals who run for parliament must first obtain 15-20% of votes in their town or city. They then must again run at the provincial level, where they need to receive the highest number of votes to gain entry to the legislature. Another article of the motion stipulates that apart from individual candidates running for office, political parties can also publish and promote lists of candidates.

The proposal has so far drawn varied reactions from both ends of the Iranian political spectrum.  

Hassan Lotfi, a parliamentarian representing the small town of Razan in the northwestern province of Hamedan, has listed soaring campaign costs as well as the increasing role of “dirty” money in politics as among the likely disadvantages of the proposed legislation. Meanwhile, Mohammad-Reza Mansouri, a lawmaker from the town of Saveh in Markazi province, has also opposed the draft legislation, saying that “the proposed method of elections would sideline towns and small cities, deprive locals in these regions of having a say in the country’s overall affairs and fuel the sense of disappointment among them.” Parliamentarian Jalal Mahmoudzadeh from Mahabad, a city that is home to many Iranian Kurds and Azeris, warned against “security matters that the proposal would activate across ethnic, religious and tribal fault lines.”

On the other side of the spectrum, Mohammad Kazemi, a Reformist parliamentarian from the city of Malayer in Hamedan province, said, “Voting at provincial levels would have advantages that include boosting the power of political parties and allowing them to play a more significant role in domestic politics.” Lawmaker Bahram Parsaei from the pro-government List of Hope has stated that “elections at provincial levels would stop acts of populism and prevent donors from spending hefty money in elections.” Parsaei, who ran on the Reformist ticket in the 2016 parliamentary elections, also listed an increased role of political parties as another advantage.

Al-Monitor spoke with Mohammad Amin Mirzaee, the head of parliamentary coverage at the semi-official Fars News Agency. According to Mirzaee, the architects of the bill hope to increase transparency and oversight before, during and after general elections are held. He argued that proponents of the bill “believe that the elites in other provinces are not influential enough in choosing provincial representatives” and thus “plan to grant the elites more power in that process.”

Mirzaee also dismissed the idea that stances on the legislation are based along political lines, saying, “The proposed motion is actually non-partisan and has strong opponents and proponents among both Reformists and conservatives.” However, he told Al-Monitor, “Reformists are a bit more eager to ratify the bill because they have the experience of obtaining people’s vote via a [joint] list," as witnessed in the 2016 legislative elections when the List of Hope won all parliamentary seats in Tehran.

The idea of holding parliamentary polls at the provincial level is not new. Rather, this is the fourth time parliament has discussed the concept. The proposal was put forward in 1999, 2002 and 2007. The Guardian Council rejected the motion outright in 2007 by arguing that it would lead to local, ethnic and tribal frictions and discrimination, reduce voter turnout and increase electoral costs.

Al-Monitor asked Mirzaee whether he thinks the Guardian Council will change its stance this time around. “If parliament ratifies the proposal with the threshold of 15% [of ballots necessary to pass] for the first round of local elections, the council would raise previous arguments and the proposed legislation would have the fate of the attempts rejected before, unless big changes are exerted in the current draft,” he said.

Mirzaee elaborated, “This motion would not promote the status of parties in the Islamic Republic because the political parties in Iran … always escape both responsibility and accountability.” He added that the motion in its current form “would only give the upper hand to powerful groups and factions without holding them accountable for their policies or political mistakes.”

As a journalist who has spent many hours in the corridors of parliament, Mirzaee said that the proposed legislation, if ratified, could resolve some problems, but overall it would not institute big changes in the dynamics of the parliament. “Holding elections at provincial levels would make the lawmakers’ constituency bigger geographically but would fail to attract people to the local elites as the writers of this bill hope," he said. "It instead would give a big share to money, relations and horse trading in politics, which in turn would form a network of regional-provincial oligarchs.”

Mirzaee continued, “Moreover, the ratification of the bill would put distance between parliamentarians and their constituents. The current legislation and the threshold of 15% of votes would not change anything while we should caution people, give them enough information and more choices to elect the best people as their representatives.”

On March 3, several news agencies reported that parliamentarians have approved the proposition to stage parliamentary elections at the provincial level. However, on March 21, the Guardian Council denied the news, elaborating, “The proposal is still under debate in parliament and has yet to be sent to the council.”

There are other dimensions to the story to consider, too. Some believe that even if both parliament and the Guardian Council approve the proposed motion, it would not be implemented in time for the next parliamentary elections in the spring of 2020.

Mirzaee told Al-Monitor, “Iran has the needed electoral infrastructure to hold general elections in accordance with the new law, and the Interior Ministry has already expressed its readiness to execute it. Although it is a bit complicated, the country could still see the next parliamentary elections being held at provincial levels.”

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