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Iran pares election roster in favor of hard-liners

With less than a month until Iran's parliamentary elections, the already-dim chances for strong voter turnout are fast diminishing amid a sweeping removal of Reformist candidates from the competition.

Iran’s powerful Guardian Council has purged many Reformists from the ranks of would-be candidates for the fast-approaching parliamentary elections, including many incumbents.

The council, controlled by hard-liners, vets hopefuls in all Iranian elections with the exception of city and village council polls. Its strict qualification procedures for the Feb. 21 vote have seen 90 current legislators sent out of the game, not to mention thousands of first-timers. Council spokesman Abbas-Ali Kadkhodaee cited "multiple grounds" on which candidates had been rejected, including alleged corruption, embezzlement, drug use or dealing and a bevy of other possible convictions and misconduct.

The widespread purge even prompted President Hassan Rouhani to strike out at the council.

"People favor political pluralism in elections," Rouhani said during a televised Cabinet meeting Jan. 15. "We cannot simply announce that 1,700 candidates have been approved and ignore the question of how many political groups those people represent. That's not what an election is about.”

He likened the council to a shop where the owner claims diversity by "offering 2,000 items on his shelves, but all [are] the same commodity.”

The 12-member council includes six senior clerics appointed by the country's supreme leader; the other six members are lawyers nominated by the judiciary chief and appointed only after winning parliamentary approval.

Rouhani's sharp rebuke of the council triggered a biting reaction from its spokesperson on Twitter.

"Causing an uproar over the vetting process is nothing new. But it is unfortunate to see the president at the forefront of such a campaign against the nation,” Kadkhodaee said. He ended his tweet with a diatribe: "We didn’t know, though, that what the president describes as purging other factions is, in fact, about disqualifying a candidate with a family association.”

The spokesman's scorn alluded to an open secret, referencing the Guardian Council's disqualification of Rouhani's 34-year-old son-in-law, Kambiz Mehdizadeh, who had wanted to represent the northwestern constituency of Tabriz.

The tit-for-tat exchange was still far from over. Rouhani's office came out with a statement lamenting Kadkhodaee's comments as "ill-considered, hasty and petty.”

It said, "While the president's criticism was meant to boost national unity and voter turnout, the Guardian Council's spokesman reduced the issue to a personal matter with an unwise tone that revealed his approach toward elections.”

The latest infighting among the ruling elites came against a backdrop of multiple crises Iran has been grappling with in recent months. Opinion polls say public discontent rooted in economic grievances and the state's handling of nationwide street protests in November have dramatically reduced Iranians' willingness to take part in the upcoming polls.

The Iranian Students Polling Agency has already painted a gloomy picture of what lies ahead. According to its report released in early January, as many as 49% of residents surveyed in the capital, Tehran, have absolutely no intention to vote, 26.5% of respondents said they would go to the ballot box only if the Guardian Council approves their favored candidates and 55.1% also held a cynical view toward the electoral process, predicting it won’t be a healthy one.

The opinion poll's grim results came even before the recent wave of public rage in Iranian streets against what many deemed the state's attempt to cover up the Jan. 8 downing of a Ukrainian passenger jetliner by an Iranian missile strike that killed all 176 on board, most of them of Iranian origin.

The Guardian Council's unprecedented purge of candidates has not even spared such senior politicians as Ali Motahhari, who served as parliament’s deputy speaker for three years.

The official explanations for the wide-reaching removals drew criticism from parliament Speaker Ali Larijani.

"Some of those lawmakers have been disqualified on the grounds that they have not demonstrated practical commitment to the Islamic Republic. This is while I have been working with them on a daily basis for the past four or even eight years, and I have not witnessed such a problem in most of those people,” he said.

Larijani, who has been at the helm of the Iranian parliament for 12 years, abruptly announced in late November that he would not run again for parliament. In defense of his fellow legislators, he urged "the gentlemen at the Guardian Council to practice the necessary shrewdness so that the rights of the candidates are not violated.”

The heated political debate at the top echelons, however, does not seem to be shared by ordinary Iranians. Multiple woes faced by the Rouhani government — the top one being the failure of the nuclear deal — have deeply disillusioned the Iranian public, killing their expectations for the ballot box. What worsens the apathy is the perceived poor performance by many Reformist lawmakers, who won the 2016 elections and gained the parliamentary majority thanks to a remarkable turnout from a public hoping for change.

With those bleak factors at play this close to the election, Iran could be awaiting one of the least competitive electoral races in its recent history. Amid the anticipated low turnout, it’s no tough task, or a matter of speculation, to predict a winner. As Reformists and their supporters have been offered nearly no spot on the pitch, the vote is expected to see only like-minded conservatives and ultraconservatives battle it out for seats in their seeming win-win game.

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