Analysis

Conservatives Won Iran's Parliamentary Election: Now Comes the Hard Part

According to unofficial sources, voter turnout was just 40%; and waiting for the incoming parliament is the country’s deep economic crisis

An Iranian woman walks past election posters on a street of the capital, Tehran, ahead of parliamentary elections.
Atta Kenare/AFP

A group of Iranian physicians suggested to the government over the weekend that it declare a long vacation in schools and universities and close movie theaters and other public places through the Persian New Year, on March 21, in an effort to halt the spread of the new coronavirus from which six Iranians have died so far.

The education and health ministries have warned against large public and private gatherings and is urging Iranians to maintain proper hygiene.

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As usual, there were those who blamed U.S. President Donald Trump for the outbreak of the coronavirus in Iran.

“The enemy wants to instill fear in people’s hearts, make Qom look like an unsafe city and to take revenge for all its defeats,” the city’s Friday prayer imam was quoted as saying.

The holy city attracts large number of Shi’ite pilgrims from Iran and abroad. It’s possible that some of the transmissions of the virus could have been prevented had the authorities banned gatherings at holy sites, including the mosques. But the virus arrived at the same time as the parliamentary election. After the government had invested copious resources to try to get citizens to the polls, it could not, at the same time, warn them about the virus and suggest they stay home.

The regime’s concern about low voter turnout was justified; according to unofficial sources only 40 percent of voters came to polls and in some districts, turnout was as low as 20 percent. This is the lowest voter turnout of any election held over the past several years.

One can assume that the official figures will be “enhanced” somewhat, to demonstrate that the public still believes in elections and has confidence in the regime. That’s also the reason that the government cajoled, encouraged and even threatened people to go to the polls. These were the first elections since the United States withdrew from the nuclear agreement, and after the violent clashes that took place following the rise in gasoline taxes, and were considered a kind of test of the government’s legitimacy.

Iranians protesting increased gasoline prices.
Wana News Agency/Reuters

The elections were also meant to test the effect of U.S. sanctions on Iranian public opinion and give an indication of the regime’s stability and the chance of replacing it.

These issues never really came to a test, however, because the regime’s screening committee made sure to sift out most of the reformist candidates, leaving only 6,500 contenders of the more than 16,000 original hopefuls for the 290 seats in parliament. Many districts had no reform candidates, but even in districts where there were, reform-minded voters apparently stayed home. The result was an overwhelming victory for the conservatives who, together with the independent candidates, won some 200 seats, compared to only 12 to 20 for the reformists.

President Rohani speaking to the press after voting in Iran's parliamentary election.
AFP photo/ HO/ Iranian Presidency

This is a parliament that will make it very difficult for President Hassan Rohani to function until the presidential elections in June 2021, in which he cannot run due to constitutional restrictions. Although foreign policy is not in the parliament’s hands, it has proved in the past, even when the conservatives were in the minority, that it can undermine the president’s status, remove ministers from Rohani’s cabinet and pass economic laws that will delay or scuttle any attempt to implement any part of Rohani’s desired reforms.

Another constitutional question is whether parliament can force the government to withdraw from the nuclear agreement, to which it remains officially committed, and thus put Iran on a collision course not just with the United States, but with those European countries still committed to the pact. The ultimate decision on this is in the hands of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who approved the signing of the agreement but isn’t blind to the pressures that parliament might exert.

The incoming parliament will include 15 former ministers from the government of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who sees himself as a candidate in the next presidential race. Moreover, Ali Larijani, Rohani’s most important conservative ally in parliament, dropped out of the parliamentary race because he, too intends to run for president.

Waiting for the incoming parliament is the country’s deep economic crisis. Another blow came just last week, when the Financial Action Task Force added Iran to its blacklist for its failure to comply with anti-terror financing norms, which includes passing laws to prevent money laundering. Following this the Iranian currency, the rial, plunged to 154,000 rials to the dollar, after it had been 130,000 to the dollar two months ago, and 40,000 two years ago.

The “resistance economy” fashioned by Khamenei, which includes tough belt-tightening measures and a drastic cut in state spending, will force the parliament, which includes many young, enthusiastic conservatives, to pass unpopular laws that are liable to anger the public and bring people out to the streets again.

It’s possible that fear of mass protests will actually give Rohani space to continue his negotiations with European countries and even make Iran’s position toward the United States more flexible, but such a policy could, at the same time, give the reformists an advantage during next year’s presidential election campaign.

Iranian President Hassan Rohani speaks during a session of parliament in Tehran.
Official presidential website/Reuters

In the domestic sphere, the new parliament will have to deal with the dozens of strikes and demonstrations by thousands of workers who were fired when hundreds of factories closed; with demands by nurses and doctors to receive parts of their salaries that have been delayed for more than a year; with the water shortage and of course with the coronavirus, which has led to a reduction in oil purchases from China. It will have to balance between the need to help the weaker classes, from which most regime supporters come, and the drained public purse, and between the desire to undermine Rohani’s position and the understanding that criticizing the government won’t produce any magic solutions.

In the background there is also the question of who will be named to replace Khamenei as supreme leader, as he hinted a few months ago when he underwent medical treatment. Khamenei now has a friendly parliament that will allow him to groom a successor, as well as a supportive Council of Experts whose job is to choose the successor and assure the survival of the regime. But making such a historic decision (Khamenei has been supreme leader since 1989) during such a serious economic crisis could lead to a deep crisis of confidence that will deny the new leader the required public legitimacy and awe unless Khamenei manages to rehabilitate Iran before he steps down.