Parliamentary Elections in Iran Reveal the Nature of the Regime

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Views from the Region


Iranians went to the polls last week to vote in the country’s parliamentary elections. The turnout, despite government reports, was quite low compared to previous elections. While fears of the spread of the Coronavirus may have convinced many voters to stay home, it appears that other factors played an even more important role. In particular, the decision to disqualify most, if not all, of the moderate candidates from the electoral lists may have led many to stay away from the voting booths in an act of civil disobedience and in an effort to delegitimize the elections. For that reason, some regional observers have suggested the regime may have overplayed its hand and, in the process, revealed its true nature.

Not surprisingly, editorials by Iran’s government-backed Tehran Times have praised the election turnout, especially given the fact that the editor-in-chief Mohammad Ghaderi alleges, “For the past three years, the Iranian people have faced the most intense and widespread hostility… and have experienced totally hybrid warfare. This full-scale warfare is aimed at exerting maximum pressure on the Iranian people and includes various aspects, such as crippling economic sanctions, military-security threats, widespread cognitive warfare in the context of media and social media, creation of chaos and domestic unrest, diplomatic movements, assassination, and so on…. But, all these intentions practically failed by the massive turnout of the people on the 41st anniversary of the Islamic Revolution last Tuesday and in processions to honor the martyrs of the resistance movement, in particular, Lieutenant General Qassem Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, as well as yesterday’s parliamentary elections.”

However, from a regional perspective, Ghaderi’s voice is drowned out by those who see the elections as a sham and a façade covering a brutal and oppressive regime. That view is reflected in a recent op-ed by Asharq Alawsat’s Amir Taheri, who sees that absence of moderate candidates as a silver-lining:  “the leadership of the revolution had no intention of creating a Western-style society in which economically and socially Westernized Iranian middle classes would feel at home. One way to deceive them was to continue with a tradition of elections dating back to 1907…. The least bad outcome of today’s polling would be the end of the ‘moderate-hardliner’ duet. Since there was no campaigning worthy of the name and no major political issues were discussed by the candidates it is impossible to know exactly who is who…. A Majlis reflecting the reality of a corrupt, incompetent and brutal regime in full is less harmful than one designed to hide the nature of the Islamic Republic and promote forlorn hopes of moderation and reform.”

Anticipating the one-sided outcome due to the exclusion of the reformist camp from the parliamentary elections, Al Monitor’s Saeid Jafari suggested in the run up to the elections that the regime’s decision would be counterproductive and exacerbate the divisions within the conservative camp: “The race for the Islamic Republic’s 11th parliament is likely to turn into one of the most peculiar competitions ever, as most of the hopefuls fall under one political umbrella, with the rival side effectively pushed aside from the game…..Signs of deeper division were more obvious in the other front, where, unlike Reformists, the conservatives are dealing with a crisis of overpopulation. The long list of candidates has, indeed, stirred up tough rivalries among different sectors of the camp…. The race is, therefore, expected to be reduced to an internal tug of war merely involving the multiple hard-line factions jostling for a greater share of seats and influence in the legislative body.”

According to Arab News’ Baria Alamuddin, the parliamentary elections represent an important turning point in the relationship between the regime and the Iranian people, leading to a rupture, that considering the volatile security and economic conditions in the country and in the region, is unlikely to be healed any time soon: “In the current fraught regional climate and under intensified US sanctions, Khamenei is remolding his administration along unmistakably confrontational lines; preparing the ground for a monolithically radicalized administration after Iran’s presidential election next year…. For Iranians themselves, this farcical vote abandoned all pretenses of democracy and accountability. With domestic disenchantment worsening by the day, perhaps the radicalizing consequences of these elections represent a moment of divorce between the regime and its citizenry, which are moving in fundamentally different directions.”

Finally, in an op-ed for The National, Iranian political activist Shirin Ebadi argues that “a free, independent and democratic Iran” may not be too far off, and that, when real change comes to Iran, it will be Iran’s women who will lead it: “Because of the current situation, the existing system of oppression in Iran, and – especially because of the legal discrimination they suffer – women participate in all demonstrations against the government…. The government finds its toughest enemies among women. Currently, more than 150 notable women feminists are languishing in prison simply because they are demanding equal rights. The number of political prisoners in Iran is high, but the government does not offer accurate numbers, and threatens families with severe consequences if they inform the media…. I know that democracy will be carried by Iranian women and established in Iran. That day is not far away and, until then, we will struggle. We want a free, independent and democratic Iran.”

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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