Iran’s Khamenei tightens grip on parliamentary elections, low turnout expected

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Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s grip over Iran is expected to tighten with parliamentary elections on Friday as all the eligible candidates come with the ruler’s stamp of approval and thousands of other hopefuls were disqualified.

Low voter turnout is expected as many people regard the elections as a meaningless exercise in political theatre.

“These elections are essentially meaningless because the Iranian system is set up in a way that you can only run for office if you have been approved by Ayatollah Khamenei and his people,” Alex Vatanka, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Middle East Institute told Al Arabiya English.

Thousands of reformist and conservative candidates were disqualified by the Guardian Council, a body made up of 12 clerics and jurists, which determines the eligibility of candidates according to criteria such as their commitment to Islamic practices, their loyalty to Velayat-e Faqih, Iran’s religious system of law, and the Islamic Republic.

The Guardian Council, which reports directly to Khamenei, allowed approximately 7,150 candidates to run out of more than 14,000, according to state TV. Nearly a third of sitting parliamentarians were banned from running again.

Khamenei urged Iranians to participate in the elections, saying on Tuesday it was a “religious, national, and revolutionary duty,” according to semi-official news agency Tasnim.

Mostafa Tajzadeh, a former deputy minister under former President Mohammad Khatami, said in a Tweet he will boycott the elections because they had effectively become “appointments” by Khamenei, rather than impartial elections.

Analysts see that the mass disqualifications have a dual purpose for Khamenei. First, to weaken President Hassan Rouhani and his allies including the outgoing Speaker of Parliament Ali Larijani; and second, to secure a loyal parliament ahead of the presidential poll next year.

“This maneuver serves two purposes: In the short term, should Ali Larijani run for and win the presidential election in 2021, a parliament hostile to Larijani secures the overall checks and balances within the system,” Ali Alfoneh, senior fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, told Al Arabiya English.

“In the longer term, a uniform parliament makes political succession after Khamenei easier for the regime,” he added.

In a country of 83 million people, there are about 58 million eligible voters who are over 18 years old. However, many analysts expect a low turnout, and caution that the Iranian regime will claim victory regardless of the actual results, especially after the widespread protests against rising living costs that broke out in November.

“Even before these protests, voter turnout was anticipated to be lower than normal. Participation in the July 2019 Tehran municipality election was at a nadir of nine percent,” Sanam Vakil, Senior Research Fellow at Middle East and North Africa Program, Chatham House told Al Arabiya English.

“To prepare for this challenge, Iran’s parliament has lowered the vote threshold for a valid result from 25 to 20 percent,” she added.

There has been widespread discontent with the regime, especially as oil revenue has dried up as a result of economic sanctions imposed by the US.

Read: Iran falls to deep recession as sanctions pummel economy: IFF

The regime has also been under great pressure since last year when hundreds of protesters, upset with a hike in fuel prices, were killed in what was the bloodiest crackdown since the 1979 Islamic revolution.

Read: ‘Death to the dictator’: Iran protests intensify after petrol price hike

“It is expected that the urban-based youth that are economically frustrated by the political and economic situation will not participate,” Vakil said.

The killing of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) – Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani by a US strike in Iraq briefly united Iranians in a sense of national solidarity.

However, that was quickly replaced by anger at the regime when the military shot down a civilian aircraft taking off from Tehran airport killing all 176 people abroad, and then tried to cover it up.

“I suspect it will be a historic low turnout, and the numbers that will be produced by the Iranian government will have to be taken with a big grain of salt because whatever happens, they will claim a win,” Vatanka said.

Rouhani has tried to rally people and encourage them to vote: “I beg you not to be passive… I am asking you… not to turn your back on ballot boxes,” he said in a speech on February 11.

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