The author contextualises Iran’s February 2020 parliamentary election and argues that it holds long-term consequences for the country.
Developments that took place in the run up to Iran’s February 2020 parliamentary elections polls indicate that not only was this election more significant and different from all post-1979 polls in the country, but that they also portend long term consequences for Iran.
The Parliament and the Guardian Council
In Iran’s post-Revolutionary political system, the Guardian Council sets eligibility criteria and selects aspiring candidates for presidential or parliamentary polls based on certain requirements. Among other criteria such as age, the requirements include aspirants pledging fealty and loyalty to the Islamic Republic’s constitution and the Supreme Leader respectively, as well as being a supporter of the Islamic Republic. The Guardian Council enjoys unlimited authority to disqualify anyone critical of the system. Those disqualified during the 2020 election include loyal and iconic figures such as Ali Motahhari, the son of Ayatollah Morteza Motahhari who was a prominent leader of Iran’s Islamic Revolution. Essentially, the during elections, the public has to choose from among candidates selected by the Guardian Council.
Many reformist and moderate figures (including 90 sitting members of parliament) were disqualified from contesting the February 2020 election, prompting incumbent President Hassan Rouhani to raise objections by expressing his concerns over democracy being threatened by the Guardian Council’s domination over the elections. He criticised the Guardian Council and other institutions for changing their roles to execute orders and dominate the electoral procedure rather than monitoring it. Other political bodies he cited—the Council of Cultural Revolution, the Supreme Council of National Security, and the Expediency Discernment Council of the System—possess more authority than the parliament (Majlis).
Since the 1979 Revolution, two main factors have contributed to the Iranian parliament’s powers getting undermined. The first involves influence of intelligence, as well as intervention by the abovementioned upstream institutions. For example, the Supreme Council of Economic Coordination of the Heads of Forces—comprised of heads of the executive, parliament and judiciary under Ayatollah Khamenei’s supervision—decided and implemented a 300 per cent increase in gas prices while keeping the members of the parliament uninformed. However, legally, this decision falls in the parliament’s purview. When protests against this decision erupted across Iran, the parliament decided to restore oil prices to pacify the public. However, incumbent Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khameinei, forced the parliament to rescind its decision as he feared that the country would demand more changes.
The Supreme Leader’s decrees (Hokm-e hokumati) comprise the second factor subverting the parliament’s functionality, as they (the decrees) have legal force and are enforceable. In several instances, the Supreme Leader’s decree has been used against the parliament’s will. Most recently, when meetings on the 2020 budget were delayed due to some members of parliament contracting COVID-19, Ayatollah Khamenei issued a decree allowing the parliament’s budget committee to decide on the budget, and for it to be reviewed by the Guardian Council instead of by a parliamentary vote. A disqualified and recent member of the parliament, Mahmoud Sadeghi, called it the final nail in the coffin for the 10th Majlis.
Key Features of the 2020 Parliamentary Election
In the recent years, friction between the public and the government has risen due to several factors, including mismanagement, corruption, political repression, economic failure, the Islamic Republic’s engagement in other countries and conflicts, and human rights issues. Moreover, two recent events adversely impacted the voter turnout and outcome of the 2020 parliamentary elections.
The first was the countrywide protests in November 2019, in which hundreds of the people died (according to a Reuters report, 1500 died). Several months on, the government is yet to officially declare the exact number of casualties. The second was the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps’ (IRGC) shooting down of Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752. Since day one, people believed that an IRGC missile had shot the aircraft down, which ultimately turned out to be true. However, government authorities denied any IRGC involvement for three days, maintaining that the crash was merely due to a technical error. They only confessed to shooting the aircraft down after international pressure mounted. Additionally, Tehran has refused to return the aircraft’s black box to Ukraine or France. This further increased public mistrust in the government’s transparency. Another trend witnessed during this election was the boycott by different groups inside and outside Iran. Overall, a combination of these factors resulted in this election witnessing the lowest voter turnout since 1979.
Implications for Iran
With the parliament’s ability to exercise its mandate weakened by other institutions, it no longer has a say in key issues, and has been reduced to a symbolic entity. In the near term, with hardliners in the majority in the parliament, Iran’s Majlis is now a submissive institution serving the Ayatollah’s goals and is his tool to undermine President Rouhani’s administration. The big picture implication is that Ayatollah Khamenei is actualising his goal of initiating the “Second Phase of the Revolution” of the “…Great Jihad [selfless endeavor] for building a great Islamic Iran.” Packed with hardliners and former IRGC officials, Iran’s new parliament will enable him to achieve this goal. Finally, Ayatollah Khameinei can, through the Guardian Council, influence the 2021 presidential election as the final step to establishing a state run entirely by hardliners.