What’s at stake in Iranian elections


Q: What’s at stake?

A: Iranians will elect a Parliament that passes laws and a clerical council, the Assembly of Experts, that is technically in charge of naming a successor to the supreme leader when he dies. But analysts say that the choice of a successor to the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, 76, will in all likelihood be deemed too important to be left to the assembly — it will instead confirm preselected candidates. The assembly also monitors the supreme leader, but that function has minimal effect.

Q: Is Iran a democracy?

A: It’s a hybrid country with religious and civil institutions. It has an elected president and Parliament, with limited powers. It also has a supreme leader who wields civil and religious authority and a Guardian Council, which comprises six religious experts and six legal experts to interpret the constitution.

Q: Doesn’t the supreme leader control everything?

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A: Yes, and no. The supreme leader has final say on all matters of religion and state. But he also needs to balance the demands and interests of competing power centers like the Revolutionary Guards and the judiciary. Khamenei, according to the constitution, cannot annul Friday’s vote. Parliament and the Assembly of Experts are officially independent powers, but parliaments —particularly the departing one — take their cues from him.

Q: How do the parliamentary elections work?

A: Parliamentary elections are held every four years. There are no parties, just individual candidates — 6,000 of them vying for 290 seats. Anyone can apply to be a candidate (men and women, clerics and laypeople), but in both elections, the Parliament and the assembly, they are then vetted by the Guardian Council to ensure they are “good Muslims” and support the Islamic republic.

Q: What happened to Iran’s reformists?

A: The reformists were a force during the presidential contest of 2009, but the movement was decapitated after its political leaders voiced support for the millions of people who took to the streets to challenge the fairness of the vote. Despite the election of the moderate President Hassan Rouhani in 2013 and the nuclear deal with the West, internally, virtually nothing has changed. This year, the Guardian Council disqualified almost half of the more than 12,000 candidates who signed up to participate in these elections, many — if not most — of them reformists.

Q: The candidates have been handpicked by conservatives, and the supreme leader has the final say in all matters. Do Iranians then care about the elections?

A: You would think not, especially after the disappointment of 2009, when the government crushed demonstrations over perceived vote-rigging. But many Iranians look upon the elections as an opportunity to cast a “revenge vote,” the only occasion they have to come back at the hard-liners many of them intensely despise. On social media, people are sharing clips of hard-liners in Parliament speaking out against the nuclear deal that Iran sealed with the Western powers this year, saying, “Let’s get rid of these guys.” They have done it before. Iran’s vast middle class feels it achieved a victory in 2013 in electing Rouhani as president over the hard-line candidates.

Q: Speaking of the president, how critical are the elections for him going forward?

A: Rouhani came to power promising two things: a nuclear deal and subsequent relief from crushing economic sanctions; and some increases in personal liberties, with more freedom on the Internet and other areas. He hoped to capitalize on the momentum from the nuclear deal to win the support in Parliament to carry through on the second part of his promise.

But the best he can hope for now is a strong minority of reformists and moderates in the new Parliament — and that is if Iran’s more liberal-leaning urbanites turn out in force.

Q: What does this mean for Iran’s relations with the West?

A: Iran’s foreign policy, firmly controlled by the supreme leader, is unlikely to change. Khamenei has been adamant that the nuclear deal was not the first step in a broad reconciliation with the West. He was equally clear this week that he expected the new Parliament to have an anti-Western cast. A hard-line victory would not endanger the nuclear deal, since Khamenei signed off on it. But a huge turnout for the moderate and reformist factions might allow Rouhani to at least continue establishing relations with Europe with less pressure and obstacles raised by the hard-liners.

Q: When will we know the outcome?

A: That is hard to say. Because of the list voting system, the individual winners will be identified slowly, perhaps beginning late Saturday and into Sunday, and maybe as late as Monday. Even then, because there are no parties as such, it will still be hard to discern which faction did best.