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The Iranian Regime in Panic Days Before Parliamentary Election

The establishment campaign has targeted the public most hurt and frustrated by restrictions on freedom and U.S. economic sanctions: young voters

Zvi Bar'el
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People walk past a parliamentary election campaign poster in Tehran, Iran February 15, 2020.
People walk past a parliamentary election campaign poster in Tehran, February 15, 2020.Credit: WANA/ REUTERS
Zvi Bar'el

Friday is parliamentary Election Day in Iran and the leadership is already in panic. Don't expect a revolution, as the country's conservatives of various stripes will continue to constitute the majority of lawmakers.

Among the powers of the Guardian Council of the Constitution is the responsibility of vetting candidates running for the 290 seats in parliament. According to reports in Iran, 9,000 out of some 16,000 candidates were eliminated. First to be disqualified were those who do not meet the constitutional criteria: Candidates must be between 30 and 75 years of age, and they must be Iranian citizens of good reputation and faithful Muslims. Also eliminated were many of the candidates who belong to reformist movements.

The real test, however, will be voter turnout. This figure usually reflects the public's confidence in the method of election, which in Iran is far from free and often fraudulent. It is also a test of confidence in the regime itself. The previous elections of 2016 were held after the signing of the nuclear agreement. Voter turnout was particularly high, to the point that polling stations hours were extended three times before finally closing at 11 P.M..

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks during a session of parliament in Tehran, Iran, December 8, 2019.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks during a session of parliament in Tehran, December 8, 2019. Credit: OFFICIAL PRESIDENT WEBSITE/ RE

The elections are now held amid harsh American sanctions following U.S. withdrawal from the deal, widespread anger following the downing of a Ukrainian passenger jet last month, and large protests in November over the rise in fuel prices in which between 350 and 1,500 people were killed (depending on the source). Low voter turnout would be perceived as a vote of no confidence in the regime and a signal of what may come in the presidential elections next year.

To ensure turnout of Iran’s some 60 million registered voters, the regime has launched a campaign of public relations, making it clear that non-participation in the elections is tantamount to treason. “All to whom Iran and its security are important must take part in the elections ... The enemies who threaten our country are afraid of public support [for the regime] more than of our military capabilities…Participation in the election is a stamp of support for the ways of the regime and will thus lead to security,” the supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei announced. President Hassan Rohani has also encouraged the public to go out and vote. “I beg you not to be passive,” he said on Tuesday.

Iranians walk past an electoral poster of a candidate of the upcoming parliamentary elections on a street in Tehran, February 12, 2020.
Iranians walk past an electoral poster of a candidate of the upcoming parliamentary elections on a street in Tehran, February 12, 2020. Credit: AFP

The regime mainly fears the response of young Iranians, who make up about half of the country's population. High unemployment, the inability to create new jobs and rampant price hikes in the wake of sanctions are only some of the reasons why young people have protested and why they might stay at home on Election Day. Last February, marking the 40th anniversary of the Islamic revolution, Khamenei issued a lengthy manifesto to which he devoted a great deal to the role of young people in “the second phase of the revolution.” “I want to turn to the youth, the generation that marches forward to begin another phase in the jihad for the building of the great Islamic Iran,” he wrote.

Iran's leadership hopes to translate this message into political action and promote the candidacy of young politicians. Some parties even established “young guards” to execute the directives of the supreme leader. This is not just any regular aspiration for new blood in the political leadership, but it is a policy that recognizes that the public is fed up with the old and corrupt.

Young people will find it hard to heed the call of a regime that treats them as enemies of the state or a fifth column of the West. This weekend, Iranians who celebrated Valentine's Day were turned into criminals as the government issued harsh edicts against the sale of products such as roses, heart-shaped dolls and chocolates in red wrappers. Stores that broke the rules were shuttered and heavily fined. The Shi’ite establishment has tried to offer an alternative to Valentine’s Day by celebrating the anniversary of the marriage of Fatima, the daughter of Prophet Mohammed prophet, to Imam Ali, the founder of Shi'a Islam. A number of universities held ceremonies and celebrations of the event, which took place 1,400 years ago, but general participation was meager. The ban on Valentine’s Day, blocking of Facebook and restrictions on personal liberties have accumulated into a serious frustration that could cause the younger generation to clash with the leadership.

Female members of the the Basij paramilitary force affiliated to the Iran's Revolutionary Guard stand at attention for the national anthem in one of the ceremonies marking "Basij Week" and also
Female members of the the Basij paramilitary force affiliated to the Iran's Revolutionary Guard commemorating the 40th anniversary of establishment of the force, in Tehran, November 24, 2019Credit: Vahid Salemi,AP

As in the past, the regime is expected to use any means at its disposal to demonstrate its legitimacy on Election Day. This may include falsifying voter turnout figures, enlisting hundreds of thousands of volunteers from the Basij branch of the Revolutionary Guards to bring people to polling stations, and payments to election activists.

The big question, however, is how the reformists will approach the election. Will they turn out in masses in order to maintain their minority strength in parliament, or will they stay away altogether, hoping to rob the regime of its legitimacy? 

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