Iran elections: conservatives heading for large majority

Iran’s conservatives are heading for a large overall majority in the country’s parliamentary elections, according to preliminary results, an outcome that reflects frustration with collapsing living standards and the apparent dead end of engagement with the west.

It means strong supporters of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, will control all the main levers of power in Iran except for the presidency. The reformists, elected four years ago on a ticket of engagement with the west, had been the largest party in parliament but found many of their proposals blocked by other centres of power in Iran, notably the Guardian Council.

The deadline for closing the 55,000 polling booths on Friday was repeatedly extended, with pro-government sources claiming the polls were kept open until midnight to cope with high turnout. Government opponents said officials had been hoping a last-minute rush might mask a voter boycott in the big cities caused by disillusionment with Iranian politics. With 42 of the 290 seats declared, four-fifths had fallen to conservatives.

The run-up to the election, dismissed as a farce by the US government, had been marked by the mass disqualification of the best-known reformist candidates. Some, such as Ali Motahari, nevertheless turned out to vote in Tehran in protest against Donald Trump.

Overall turnout in Tehran was heading to an unimpressive 22%, unofficial estimates showed. The national turnout was close to 40% , down from 62% in 2016.

Following the spread of the new coronavirus to Iran, the number of Iranians wearing face masks in the capital had visibly increased and a senior Tehran official said it added to the sense of a country battling on successive fronts.

But government hardliners will be delighted if the principlists, as conservatives are termed, become the largest party in the 290-strong parliament on a respectable turnout.

Presidential elections are due next year, leaving the centrist incumbent, Hassan Rouhani, to navigate a difficult year engaging with a strong, largely unsympathetic parliament.

Initial results showed at least three former cabinet members in Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s presidency had been elected, as well as his former central bank governor.

The former mayor of Tehran, Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, an Iraq-Iran war veteran and former commander of the Revolutionary Guards, was also heading for victory in Tehran, putting him in the running to take over the parliament’s speakership.

That post had previously been held by Ali Larijani, who stood down to prepare for a likely run at the presidency.

Ghalibaf has said only 30% of the country’s economic travails are caused by sanctions, saying mismanagement of the economy is the chief culprit. Principlists claim the reformers have tried to interfere in the economy excessively, and want Iran to look to its neighbours to boost trade, rather than Europe. Ghalibaf’s insistence that Iran is responsible for its own fate may be a rod for his own back if the economy does not improve.

Reformers have threatened to pursue Ghalibaf over property deals from which he benefitted as president.

Parliament has little direct leverage over foreign policy, but with this mandate it will feel it can intervene if Rouhani tried to engage in any talks with the US prior to a lifting of sanctions.

The Iranian foreign ministry believes Trump has been gripped by a fantasy that the maximum economic pressure is going to lead to the Iranian regime’s fall. The election results, despite the low turnout, arguably show the regime’s power has been enhanced.

The foreign ministry are said to be 80% certain that the US president will be re-elected, and believe any prospect of progress on the nuclear deal is unlikely until after the US elections in November. There is concern that Britain may break from its European partners France and Germany and in the summer even end its support for the deal, siding with Trump who quit the agreement in 2018.

Many ordinary Iranians at the polling booths said they were willing to withstand another six years of sanctions for the sake of their country’s independence..

Reformists such as Motahari defended the reformist-led parliament’s record, saying other external Iranian bodies, such as the Guardian Council, had blocked more than half of its legislation.

He said the parliament was excluded when the government suddenly doubled petrol prices in November, prompting state repression of street protests. He said parliament had wanted to impeach the interior ministry for its handling of the protests, but had been ordered not to do so.

The legislature had also pressed officials to reveal the official estimate of the number of Iranians killed by the state in the four days of protests, but said official bodies delayed doing so until after the election. Amnesty International has put the numbers in the hundreds. Three of those arrested in the protests have been sentenced to death.

About 7,150 candidates from more than 16,000 hopefuls survived vetting by government-run panels and the Guardian Council, a conservative body of clerics and jurists who assess commitment to Islam, corruption, belief in the system of religious law and the Islamic Republic.

A third of all incumbents were thrown out, and reformers claimed tthat left no reformer candidates in more than 200 of the assembly’s 290 seats. These figures are disputed by the Guardian Council, but there are no official figures on the politics of those disqualified.

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