Elections: Voters Uninterested, Principlists Making Backroom Deals

The urgency in the campaign of persuasion to bring voters to the polls come March, about three weeks away, is kicking into high gear. Two previous elections in 2020 and 2021 saw rapidly diminishing voter turnout as a result of state action that resulted in citizen deaths. Participation in 2020 fell as a result of the downing of the Ukrainian airliner and the earlier massacre of protesters in November 2019, and in 2021 it was the poorly handled issue of COVID-19 vaccines, resulting in the needless death of tens of thousands of Iranians. The elections in March this year will be the first since the Woman, Life, Freedom protests of 2022 that began with the killing of Mahsa Amini, and authorities are pulling out all the stops to ensure that a high voter turnout, preceded by large-scale celebration of the anniversary of the revolution on 11 February, confirms their pronouncements about the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic and its acceptability by the Iranian public.

With the Guardian Council (GC) having made it virtually impossible for reformists and moderates to compete, GC spokesman Hadi Tahan-Nazif cited numbers to convince voters they had plenty of choice, declaring that 73 percent of registrants, about 15,000 in total, had cleared the GC’s filter and would be on the ballot—something he highlighted as “unprecedented.” This would imply that voters, therefore, had no excuse to sit out the election. Many disqualified candidates for the Majles were vocal critics of the state of the country, such as incumbent MPs Jalal Mahmudzadeh, Jalal Rashidi-Kuchi, and Ahmad Alirezabeigi, as well as former MP Gholamali Ja’farzadeh-Imanabadi. Surprisingly, Gholamreza Tajgardun made the cut. This was an MP who actually won his seat handily in 2020, but hardliners in the Majles disenfranchised his constituency by unceremoniously—and illegally—expelling him from the legislature. It is intriguing to imagine what would happen if he won. Understandably, regime supporters like Friday prayer leaders were eager to keep enthusiasm high. The Friday imam in Ahvaz urged voters not to call each other up to stay away from the polls. His colleague in Isfahan also urged people to turn out in great numbers on 11 February as a way of renewing their pledge of fealty to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

With the reformist camp having been reduced to a non-factor, the only real contest will be among factions within the principlist side of the house. The way things have shaped up, there are now three major currents. The first is the Coalition Council, comprising Majles Speaker Mohammad-Baqer Qalibaf at the head of the ticket, aided by his principal ally Gholamali Haddad-Adel. The second is the Unity Council, with former MP and current member of the Expediency Discernment Council Mohammadreza Bahonar at the head of the ticket. The third is a new coalition with the Persian acronym OMANA that was hastily cobbled together just a few days ago, consisting of allies of the Ra’isi administration as well as the ultra-hardline group known as SHARAYAN. Cleric and former MP Hamid Rasa’i, a prominent figure in the Paydari Front, will head this ticket. Among its constituents is the MASAF group headed by hardline conspiracy theorist Ali-Akbar Ra’efipur, who it is said has been tasked with scuttling Qalibaf’s chances. The reformist outlet Donya-e-Eqtesad points out the paramount importance of unity for the principlists, but also notes the difficulty of achieving it. The battle seems to be largely over the all-important 30 Majles seats for Tehran. Statements by Paydari bigwig and MP Morteza Aqatehrani hint at the possibility of an understanding with the Coalition Council, but Qalibaf’s prominent presence there could be a deal-breaker.

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