Iran's stacked election is expected to produce a hardline Parliament

People walk past electoral posters in Teheran on Feb 20, 2020, the day before Iranian parliamentary elections.
People walk past electoral posters in Teheran on Feb 20, 2020, the day before Iranian parliamentary elections.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

TEHERAN (NYTIMES) - When Iranians go to the polls on Friday (Feb 21), they will be taking part in what may be the least representative and least fair election in the Islamic Republic's history.

While Iran's parliamentary elections have never been free and democratic, Iran's clerical leadership disqualified more than 7,000 candidates from running this year, including most of the moderates and centrists, paving the way for tougher domestic and foreign policies.

At a time when Iran is navigating extraordinary challenges at home and abroad - from the possibility of conflict with the United States to crippling economic sanctions and a restive population - Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, appears to have concluded that the best way to manage the turmoil is to squelch dissenting voices and assure a Parliament that would rubber-stamp conservative policies.

"The next Parliament will be completely obedient to Khamenei, more radical in their approach, and the little voices of dissent we hear on different issues will be silenced," said Mr Roozbeh Mirebrahimi, an independent Iran analyst based in New York.

About three-quarters of the current members of Parliament, where moderates and centrists make up a near majority, were barred from seeking re-election.

The new Parliament is expected to embrace a hard line against the US and would be unlikely to support efforts to negotiate a new nuclear agreement or respond positively to US demands like ending support for proxy militias and allies across the Middle East.

To the contrary, analysts expect Iran to beef up ties with proxies like Hizbollah in Lebanon and militias in Iraq and Syria.

Many conservative candidates adopted the slogan "I am Qassem Soleimani", a reference to the Iranian military leader who oversaw Iran's regional proxies and who was killed by a US airstrike last month. These candidates pledged to pursue harsh revenge against the US for the killing.

The heightened antipathy toward the US may be at least partly the result of Trump administration policies. President Hassan Rouhani, a moderate who staked his career on the nuclear agreement with the US and European powers, was kneecapped when President Donald Trump withdrew from the agreement in 2016.

Mr Rouhani and moderate lawmakers - who hold 122 seats in the current 290-member Parliament - had bet that the lifting of economic sanctions in exchange for accepting limits on Iran's nuclear programme would end Iran's economic isolation and bring foreign investment and prosperity.

Instead, the US tightened sanctions in 2018, which have damaged the economy, cratered oil exports and brought hardship to many. Soaring gas prices set off mass anti-government protests in November, which the government put down with violence, killing hundreds of protesters.


The Rouhani programme, in the eyes of many Iranians, failed to deliver.

One priority for the new Parliament will be to curtail the policies of Mr Rouhani and his administration for his remaining time in office, until spring 2022. Mr Rouhani and his foreign minister, Mr Mohammad Javad Zarif, widely disliked by conservatives as too pro-Western, are likely to face obstacles at every turn.

The conservatives are pushing a programme of economic resistance, an effort to make Iran more self-reliant, less dependent on global markets and trade, and closer to Russia and China.

Ayatollah Khamenei has final say on these policies, but Parliament has the ability to shape, defend or criticise them.

The current Parliament advocated Iran remaining committed to the nuclear deal with world powers, to engage in diplomacy rather than confrontation, and to sign an international agreement against money laundering. All of those policies are at risk.

In Washington, the Trump administration said on Thursday that it was freezing the assets of five Iranian election officials over the mass disqualifications.

"Unfortunately for the Iranian people, the real election took place in secret long before any ballots were even cast," Mr Brian Hook, the State Department's special envoy for Iran policy, told reporters.

Iranians "know that tomorrow's election is political theatre", he said. "It is a republic in name only when the government disqualifies half of the candidates running for office."

The five sanctioned officials were members of the Guardian Council, a panel that vets political candidates and wields oversight of Parliament.

Turnout in the election is expected to be at an all-time low in the capital, Teheran, and other big cities. Many ordinary Iranians, prominent activists and moderate politicians plan to boycott.

"This is an engineered selection, not an election, so I am not voting," said Mr Mostafa Tajzadeh, a prominent moderate politician and former acting interior minister.

"This level of disqualifications is unprecedented and very alarming."

Some Iranians said they had lost hope in the idea of changing Iran through the ballot box.

"I'm not voting because my vote doesn't count," said Ms Roya, a 41-year-old business owner in Teheran, who asked not to use her last name.

"They don't listen to our demands and only want use our votes to show they have popular support."

Mr Ali Gholizadeh, a 34-year-old political activist from Mashhad and a university lecturer, said he and his family are not opponents of the clerical leadership but still would not vote on Friday.

"I care about national security, I care about my country, but I can't stand how they have such total disrespect of the public," he said in a telephone interview.

"These are sham elections. Nobody was allowed to run except their own people."

Another potential deterrent for turnout was the news of a coronavirus outbreak in the city of Qum, a Shi'ite religious centre that has a constant flow of pilgrims going in and out of the city.

Two people have died in Qum from the virus, and five more were reported infected on Thursday.

Health officials in Qum warned people to stay away from public spaces, raising alarm about the safety of tightly packed polling stations and a requirement that voters stamp their fingers in a public ink well.

Qum's governor said on Thursday that elections would be held as planned and voters should bring their own pens to mark their ballots. He said polling stations would be equipped with masks and disinfectants.

On social media, ardent supporters of the Islamic Republic tweeted that the coronavirus would not deter them from their civic duty. Some suggested that foreign powers like the US may have had a hand in spreading it to keep people from voting.

"Coronavirus is such a smart virus! It showed up in Iran just a day before elections," tweeted Mr Ali Akbar Raefipour, a hardline conservative commentator.

"The US is stooping so low and its local stooges are trying so hard."

Supporters of the disqualifications defended them, saying the ousted candidates were not fit to run - either because they were corrupt or disloyal to Ayatollah Khamenei and the Islamic Revolution.

"There are enough reformist candidates on the ballot," Mr Foad Izadi, a conservative political analyst, said in a telephone interview from Teheran.

"The new Parliament will be stronger and more united with a better oversight role. They will use all the tools they have to keep Rouhani's ministers in line."

Voters will have a choice among various shades of conservatives: a new generation of zealot technocrats; religious and anti-corruption hardliners; or members of the Revolutionary Guard and the military.

In Teheran, for example, 134 conservatives are running against 28 moderate candidates for 30 seats.

Only one well-known moderate politician is running. In the city of Mashhad, not a single reformist or centrist candidate is on the ballot.

And for the first time, a former Revolutionary Guard commander, Mr Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, could become the next Speaker of Parliament.

Mr Ghalibaf, a former Teheran mayor and chief of police, is the lead conservative candidate in Teheran.