Iranian elections – the illusion of democracy

With Iranian Parliamentary elections scheduled for 26th February attention will once again focus upon the Islamic Republic for any signs of change following the recent rapprochement with the West.  Jane Green reports.

Iran’s return to the international fold has been negotiated over a long period, and is not without caveats, but certainly marks a significant change in relations with the United States and European Union in particular.

While the focus of attention has been on negotiations relating to Iran’s domestic nuclear energy programme there is no indication that human rights has been on the agenda as part of any discussions.  The international business community are keen to cut the kind of deals which will boost their profits but the position for Iranian trade union and opposition activists is unlikely to look very different.

The visit of Iranian President  Rouhani to Italy and France  will no doubt have sealed the Airbus deal  but that will not free a single unjustly imprisoned trade unionist in Iran.

By the same token the up and coming elections in Iran are little more than the veneer of democracy, as the ability to stand is tightly controlled by the Guardian Council and the Supreme Leader, Ayotollah Ali Khamenei.

Elections to the Majlis (Parliament) are held every four years and prominent figures hoping to appear on the ballot paper need to determine beforehand whether Khamenei and his inner circle of advisors will oppose their candidacy.  It is said that the Supreme Leader does not explicitly advise anyone against running, but his office or other high-ranking officials will often reveal his views on specific cases.

Also, when candidates register their names, the Guardian Council has to qualify them based on several criteria, notably their full “practical” loyalty to the Supreme Leader and their recognition of his authority over all matters of the state.  Finally, once elections are complete, the Guardian Council is solely responsible for endorsing the final result, despite sharing supervision over the vote counting process with the Interior Ministry.

Through utilising these methods the Islamic Republic can claim that the elections are free and fair because everyone is eligible to vote.  While attempting to control the outcome of the elections, the regime’s leaders are keen to have a massive turn out for the contest in four weeks time and have mobilised their entire publicity machine.  The turnout in this election has assumed significance since it will be used as a measure of the popularity of the regime and a test of its political stability.  However this disguises the high degree of manipulation which precedes the selection of those who appear on the ballot paper at all.

Given the conservative nature of the regime in Iran and the fears of many hardliners that Rouhani is ‘too reformist’, there is every chance that conservatives will take the opportunity to further squeeze out the limited voices for change which there may be in the Majlis.

Of 3,000 candidates put forward by reformists only 30 have been allowed to stand by the Guardian Council, a mere one in one hundred of those wishing to stand.  It is worth remembering that these are candidates who are deemed ‘reformist’ within the very narrow confines of that term in Iranian politics.  There are no candidates opposed to the regime, standing for the rights of women or actively promoting the right of Iranian workers to engage in free and open trade union activity.

Persistent reports in Iranian opposition media indicate that the powerful Sepah Pasdaran (the Guards Corps) are confident that at least 180 out of the 290 seats of the new Majlis will be filled with their candidates, carefully selected from within the ranks of their commanders and ideologists.

In total 40% of the 12,000 hopefuls for parliamentary election, including a significant number of MPs in the outgoing Majlis (Parliament), have failed to qualify.  Those disqualified include Ali Motahari, a persistent critic of the hard-line Islamists in the regime, and Rasoul Montajabnia, the vice-president of the pro-reform Etemad Melli Party founded by Mehdi Karoubi, one of the two reformist candidates during the 2009 presidential candidates.  Others excluded are Majid Farahani, the head of the pro-reform Nedaye Iranian Party, and Akbar Alami, a former reformist member of parliament.

Sadegh Zibakalam, professor of political science at Tehran University, stated that the reformists now expected the president to step forward: “According to the constitution, as the president and the country’s second power [after the leader] Mr Rouhani should supervise the implementation of the constitution.  So now everyone’s expecting him to protest against the wide disqualifications.”

Jamshid Ahmadi, Assistant General Secretary of solidarity group Committee for the Defence of the Iranian People’s Rights (CODIR) has called into question the legitimacy of the elections.

“It is clear that many potential candidates have been excluded due to their political opinions”, he said, “that hardly makes for an electoral process that can, in any normal sense, be described as free and fair.  Until real opposition candidates are allowed to stand and the Iranian regime cleans up its act on human rights the elections will be little more than the illusion of democracy.”

Jane Green is National Campaign Officer of CODIR, the Committee for the Defence of Iranian People’s Rights and can be contacted at  For further information on Iran visit:

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