We are not anticipating major unrest around the elections, but high levels of participation in the process are probable, with turnout likely to be well over 50%.
Elections in Iran next month will be central in determining the country’s political and economic direction in the coming years, and how the nuclear deal is likely to change these. Public ballots for parliament (Islamic Consultative Assembly, or Majles) and the Assembly of Experts will be held on 26 February. Forecasts for this are inexact, given the large number of candidates, an absence of polling and the complexity of issues at hand, but precedent suggests that the polls will be closely contested. With reformist candidates mainly excluded from the process, they seem unlikely to do well, and unelected but powerful bodies seem determined to prevent rapid change.
The Majles has 290 members, mainly independents. Membership of parties and lists has tended to be fluid, but as the Washington Institute points out, the body has often been a site of vocal political debate, and voters do not tend to favour incumbents. The organisation says that historically there has been a 30% turnover of MPs. We have seen no specific polling, but the main factions to watch for are the reformists, relative moderates (like President Rouhani), conservatives (a very broad category) and supporters of former president Ahmadinejad (also conservatives).
All candidates have now been vetted by the Guardian Council, which seems to have prevented many reformists from running. Representatives of the latter have been widely quoted in the international press as saying that 1% of their candidates were approved (30 out of 3,000). In total, the Guardian Council approved 4,700 candidates out of 12,000 applications. Rouhani vocally criticised the body’s approach on Thursday, and reiterated his previous calls for reformists – who have been effectively excluded from the political process since mass unrest after the 2009 elections – to be allowed back into the fold.
The Majles elections are particularly important for Rouhani – the makeup of the new parliament may determine whether he is to be able to ensure economic growth, and enable Iran to maximise the benefits of sanctions relief. A prominent economist and observer of Iran pointed out this week that Rouhani will have to get his 2016 budget, and Iran’s sixth development plan, past parliamentary scrutiny. That plan will run from March 2016 to March 2020. Rouhani wants Iran to average 8% growth in this period, but has acknowledged that this requires $30-50 billion a year foreign investment, which will in turn require liberalisation of the economy.
We are not anticipating major unrest around the elections, but high levels of participation in the process are probable, with turnout likely to be well over 50%. This reflects the lessons the authorities learnt in 2009, essentially ensuring that there is no upset at the ballot box by excluding candidates or factions they do not want to win. There continue to be arrests and crackdowns, which remain a strong deterrent to protesters. Added to this is Rouhani’s presidency, which has shown that change can be achieved through the political system, albeit very slowly. Instead, we think that economic liberalisation bringing price rises – particularly for staple foods and fuel – are more likely triggers for social unrest.
Elections to the Assembly of Experts are also particularly important this year. The Assembly will sit for eight years, so it will probably choose a replacement for Ayatollah Khamenei. The Supreme Leader is 75, and there are rumours that he is in ill health. The body is notoriously conservative, and candidates are also vetted by the Guardian Council, although voted by the public. Most reports suggest that turnout is usually lower than for presidential or parliamentary elections, but this may well change as polling is on the same day as parliamentary elections this time.
As with the parliament, the key question is whether more moderate figures – such as Rouhani and political veteran Rafsanjani – will be able to make inroads into the Assembly. Comments by the Guardian Council leader so far suggest that he is resistant to change, reform, or attempts to make the Assembly about ‘politics’. This seems to suggest that the establishment is seeking to avoid a power shift in February elections, although it was announced this morning that the Council approved Rouhani and Rafsanjani’s candidacy. But even the Iranian authorities have misjudged the public mood at recent elections, which have tended to be relatively free on the day at least, so the outcome is by no means certain.
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Image: NASA, derivative work of John Nevard Creative Commons