Iran elections: what next for the Middle East?

Conservative hardliners record sweeping victory as voter turnout plummets

An Iranian voter holds portraits of current and former Supreme Leaders, Ayatollahs Khamenei and Khomeini
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Conservative religious hardliners have won a landslide victory in Iran’s controversial parliamentary elections, taking every seat in Tehran amid a record low voter turnout.

Just 42% of eligible voters took part in the poll on Friday – the lowest number since the 1979 revolution.

And one unofficial tally said that nationalists and religious conservatives loyal to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei have won 178 of the 290 seats in the country’s chamber.

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What happened at the ballot box?

The “principlists” – Iran’s conservative factions – claimed a storming victory on Sunday in an election marked by low turnout and “public anger against the government, an economic downturn and the disqualification of half the candidates”, The Times of Israel says.

The reformists, allied to President Hassan Rouhani and the largest grouping in the outgoing parliament, were crushed at the voting booths, with predictions showing them claiming only 17 seats in the 290-seat parliament. The principlists, meanwhile, were on course to take around 200 seats, including all 30 seats in the capital, Tehran, previously a stronghold of the reformers.

But Iran has been heavily criticised for its management of the election, with allegations of corruption tainting the process.

In the week leading up to the election, more than 70,000 people – including more than 80 incumbents – were disqualified from standing by the Guardian Council of the Constitution, a powerful 12-member body largely appointed by Khamenei that acts as Iran’s constitutional watchdog.

Voter turnout, too, has been a point of contention. Interior minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli confirmed this week that the 42% turnout – a record low in modern Iran – was “completely acceptable”, as the public cowers from a “coronavirus outbreak, bad weather and recent protests” as well as the “shooting down of a Ukrainian passenger plane in January”, the BBC reports. In Tehran, turnout was just 25.4%.

On Sunday, Khamenei said the country’s enemies had tried to “discourage” people from voting by exaggerating the threat of coronavirus.

However, Fouad Izadi, a professor at the faculty of world studies at Tehran University, told Al Jazeera this week that low turnout reflected the public’s unwillingness to support Rouhani.

“For the most part, a good portion of Rouhani’s supporters did not show again because they did not wish to vote for him nor for the opposition,” he said.

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What does the result mean?

For Iran’s geopolitical rivals, the results are nothing short of a disaster.

Iran has been heavily criticised for interfering in affairs in Iraq and Syria as a power vacuum envelops both countries, and has pushed to increase its military influence across the region. Al Jazeera reports that Tehran has “played a key role in shoring up support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad after the country descended into war in 2011”, and has also “armed and trained militias that helped defeat the [Islamic State]”.

Iranian political commentator Mohammad Hashemi told the broadcaster: “Many of the prominent conservative principlists have thrown their support behind IRGC [Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps] and its Quds force external operations and it is expected that approach would further be reinforced and persued more strongly in the parliament.”

Saied Golkar, professor of political science at the University of Tennessee in the US, adds: “This situation will help Khamenei and the Guard and their allies… to consolidate their grip.”

And, of course, the result is problematic for US President Donald Trump. After years of a simmering cold war in Iraq and Syria, Washington had clearly hoped to neuter Iran’s military resolve by controversially assassinating Quds leader Qasem Soleimani in Iraq in January.

But the move has clearly backfired, having driven the two countries to the brink of war and resulted in a boost for hardline nationalist, anti-American sentiment within Iranian borders.

“Victory for the anti-American candidates, a new slap for Trump,” said the ultra-conservative Kayhan newspaper in the wake of the Iranian election, adding: “The people have disqualified the reformists.”

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