Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Iranian Elections Test the Regime’s Legitimacy

The Iranian elections highlighted the regime's struggle to maintain legitimacy, deepening political divisions and instability in Iran.

Iranian Elections
An Iranian woman shows her ink-stained finger after casting her ballot at a polling station in Tehran. ATTA KENARE / AFP

Ali Noureddine

This article was translated from Arabic to English

In March 2024, Iranians headed to the ballot boxes to elect 290 members of the Shura Council, the legislative or parliamentary authority in Iran.

Additionally, the elections included the selection of 88 members of the Assembly of Experts, tasked with appointing the Supreme Leader of the Republic.

Following the conclusion of the elections, winners for 44 seats in the Shura Council remained undecided, awaiting determination in the second round scheduled for May 2024.

Iranian election law stipulates that parliamentary elections are to be repeated in districts where the votes received by candidates constitute less than 20 per cent of the electorate.

However, the election results carried significant political implications, reflecting recent transformations within Iran.

The Significance of the Elections’ Timing

Before delving into the election results and their implications, it’s important to note that the timing of these elections was of particular significance for the Iranian regime, to the extent that it serves as a litmus test for its legitimacy.

This comes in the wake of widespread popular protests that erupted in September 2022, and were deemed emblematic of the widening chasm between the regime’s values and the lifestyle aspirations of the burgeoning youth demographic.

It’s worth noting that these protests were triggered by the tragic death of Mahsa Amini, a young woman who was allegedly mistreated by the police for not wearing the hijab properly, sparking outrage across the nation.

Beyond the limited powers vested in the Parliament or the Shura Council compared to Western democratic legislatures, Iranians eagerly awaited the election results to gauge popular participation, as reflected in voter turnout. The turnout percentages would signal the level of political engagement across different regions under the framework of the existing Islamic regime.

The Assembly of Experts election results hold particular significance at this juncture. This body, comprised of jurists and clerics, serves an eight-year term and holds the authority to appoint the supreme leader, the apex political and religious figure in Iran.

With the current supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, nearing 85 years of age, speculation arises regarding his successor, heightening tensions within influential factions of the Islamic system.

In this way, the Iranian public awaited the results of the Assembly of Experts elections to gauge the power balance within the regime itself, which would determine the identity of the next supreme leader.

It is worth noting that in recent years, the Iranian political arena has seen conflicting speculations regarding the most likely candidates to assume this responsibility, with this tug-of-war remaining unresolved to this day. This contrasts sharply with what happened in 1989, when Khamenei was prepared to succeed the late Khomeini, through amendments to the constitution and the removal of certain conditions that hindered Khamenei’s accession to the position.

Excluding Reformists and the Opposition from the Polls

There is a particularity to Iranian electoral laws, which sets them apart from other forms of unrestricted elections in other parts of the world.

The Guardian Council has the discretionary authority allowing it to invalidate an unlimited number of candidacies for the Shura Council and the Assembly of Experts. Candidacies can be invalidated simply upon suspicion or uncertainty from the Council regarding the candidate’s loyalty to the values of the regime and the principle of the Guardianship of the Jurist (Velayat-e Faqih).

According to the Iranian constitution, half of the members of this council are appointed by the Supreme Leader himself, while the other half are appointed based on the recommendation of the head of the judiciary authority, who is also appointed by the Supreme Leader.

Consistent with previous cycles, in the current election phase, the Guardian Council invalidated the majority of candidates from reformists and opposition groups, known for advocating more liberal values compared to fundamentalist factions.

According to Guardian Council reports, over 48 per cent of submissions for the Shura Council and Assembly of Expert positions were invalidated. Notably, 26 Shura Council representatives were barred from participating due to their opposition to initiatives such as banning social media platforms and enforcing the hijab.

Consequently, after the exclusion of this significant portion of candidates, the count of reformist and opposition candidates dwindled to fewer than 30, compared to 290 Shura Council seats.

This effectively narrowed the competition to fundamentalist and extremist parties, with most reformist movements opting out of the electoral race.

Predictably, this exclusion of vital segments of Iranian society from the electoral process led to apathy, with more than half of Iranians expressing disinterest in voting, reflected in the subsequent low turnout rates.

Prior to election day, it was notable that former President Hassan Rouhani, a prominent figure in the reformist movement, was disqualified from running for the Assembly of Experts.

Rouhani’s exclusion aimed at preventing reformists from influencing future supreme leader selections, prompting him to denounce the decision as politically motivated, serving the interests of his opponents within the fundamentalist ranks.

Tepid Turnout

The elections stood far removed from the burgeoning dynamics witnessed on the streets of Iran amid recent protests, as the race was mainly limited to groups most aligned with the incumbent regime.

Consequently, voter turnout plummeted to a mere 41 per cent, marking the lowest participation rate since the Islamic Revolution of 1979. Particularly alarming for the Iranian authorities was the sharp decline to 24 per cent in Tehran, a city renowned for its expansive, influential middle class.

In Tehran alone, the leading candidate garnered a mere third of the votes compared to the previous electoral cycle in 2020, underscoring the stark impact of dwindling popular engagement.

Conversely, the proportion of invalidated votes surged to 8 per cent, signaling dissent against candidates disqualified by the Guardian Council. In numerous constituencies, these null ballots claimed top positions, while legitimate votes fragmented across other contenders and lists.

In a contest increasingly dominated by factions within the fundamentalist movement, the most radical elements gained ground. Notably, the Baydari Party staunchly opposes concessions on women’s rights and advocates for extreme cultural and social positions.

Figures like Mahmoud Nabawyan, known for his 2015 spectacle of burning the “nuclear agreement” text in parliament in rejection of any settlement that would limit Iran’s progress on its nuclear path, ascended among fundamentalist ranks, eclipsing more moderate voices like Muhammad Baqir Nobakht and Muhammad Reza Bahanar.

At the Assembly of Experts, the outcome dealt a blow to Ayatollah Larijani, once seen as a potential successor to Khamenei. This setback dealt as a second severe blow for the influential Larijani family, after the Guardian Council in 2021 rejected the candidacy of one of its members, Ali Larijani, for the presidency, despite his having headed the Shura Council for more than 12 consecutive years.

Overall, the elections propelled the most extremist elements within the Shura Council and Assembly of Experts, expanding the gulf between the regime and segments of society involved in recent protests. The regime’s failure to rejuvenate legitimacy through the ballot box, evident in the tepid voter turnout, highlights the widespread rejection of norms imposed by the regime.

Consequently, many analysts anticipate further political unrest akin to recent protests, fueled by a blocked political horizon and constitutional institutions’ reluctance to accommodate societal transformations.

user placeholder
written by
All Dima articles