As Iranians Prepare to Vote, a Look Inside the Workings of Its 'Religious Democracy'

In Iran, politicians are elected, but an authorize political body has the power to decide which candidates can stand for election.

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People walk past a large picture of the late leader of the Islamic Revolution Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, during a ceremony marking the 37th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, in Tehran February 11, 2016.
People walk past a large picture of the late leader of the Islamic Revolution Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in Tehran February 11, 2016.Credit: Reuters
Farshid Motahari

dpa - In Iran the people vote for the president, the parliament and the Assembly of Experts. But the pool of candidates from which the electorate can choose is decided on by the Guardian Council. This election management body rules whether or not candidates are loyal to the regime. But the criteria for being accepted for candidacy are unclear. The grey areas of the decision process have been the subject of debate for many years, most regarding the differentiation between constructive criticism and criticism of the regime.

What is the basis of Iran's political system?

Iranian politics is based on a system known as velayat-e faqih, or the political guardianship of Islamic jurists. According to this system, the country's highest religious figure is the de facto head of state. From 1979 to 1989 Ayatollah Khomeini ruled under this authority. Following his death in 1989, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was named his successor as supreme and spiritual leader.

Iranian President Hassan Rohani waves during a rally in Tehran to mark the 37th anniversary of the Islamic revolution, February 11, 2016.Credit: AFP

How does the voting process work and who decides over foreign and domestic affairs?

The president, the parliament and the Assembly of Experts are democratically elected. The president is politically in charge of foreign and domestic policy, but the supreme leader still has the last word, particularly when it comes to strategic matters.

What is the Assembly of Experts and what role does the Guardian Council play?

The Assembly of Experts is a political body of 86 (soon to be 88) clerics that decide on a supreme leader and monitor his work. Because the members of this expert council are democratically elected, the constitution claims that the naming of this leader is part of a democratic process.

The Guardian Council is a 12-member election management body. Six of those are Islamic clerics appointed by the supreme leader and another six are lawyers appointed by parliament. Every law needs to be first approved by this council, and the council also decides on the ideological qualifications of candidates for presidency, parliament and the Assembly of Experts.

Iranian women at a reformists campaign meeting for the upcoming parliamentary elections at Hejab hall in downtown Tehran on February 20, 2016.Credit: AFP

Is there a party system in Iran?

There are parties in Iran, but these act more like political factions and subgroups. For this reason the media in Iran often refer to them as "Jennah" (wings). High-ranking politicians always claim to be above party level. There are countless factions that can also be split up into groups, such as the conservatives, the fundamentalists - which include the hardliners - and the reformers.

What do conservatives, hardliners and reformers want?

The conservatives and the fundamentalists both align themselves with the ideas of the revolution and are fully loyal to the regime. One group of the conservatives is open to limited relations with the West and partial reform to domestic politics. The fundamentalists are ideologically closer to the hardliners. These see the West as an imperialist enemy and strive for a purely Islamic society devoid of all Western influence. The reformers are looking to introduce a better relationship to the West through reformed Iranian foreign and economic policy. They also seek to allow greater freedoms within the country's domestic and cultural policies.

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