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International Affairs Editor

Q&A: Parliamentary elections in Iran

Le 02-03-2012

Iranian voters cast their ballot on Friday to choose 290 members of the parliament. The elections are widely viewed as a popularity contest between conservative supporters of Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and those who back President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

1. Just how important are these elections?

Given the lack of choice on offer, the election campaign has been quite lively - and that is because the election reflects a power struggle going on between the various hardline religious groups. They’re also the first national elections in Iran since the disputed re-election of Ahmadinejad in the presidential election's of 2009 - so they are casting a light on how much has changed in the intervening years. This time, round the religious hardliners have marginalised the reformers. They’ve either been excluded from the ballot or are boycotting it.

2. Is this a real vote? Is there a contest?

Yes, there is a real vote but Iran’s version of democracy is a rather impoverished one. It offers a contest - but within a very narrow ideological spectrum. The choice today is essentially between more or less extreme forms of religious conservatism.

The current parliament is dominated by the United Fundamentalist Front, most of whom are opponents of the president and supporters of the Supreme Leader. But it is relatively moderate compared with the Stability Front, which has conducted an aggressive campaign. It represents the extreme end of Iranian fundamentalism and advocates an aggressively anti-Western foreign policy. It is expected to do quite well. The Resistance Front supports Ahmadinejad.

The years since 2009 have witnessed a growing rivalry between the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and the President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. This election is largely about that. If Ahmadinejad’s supporters do well, expect him to try to push the powers of the presidency to the limit and to play a big role in deciding who succeeds him in next year’s presidential election. If he loses, watch for his position being gradually eroded.

3. Could the election have any effect on Iranian government policy?

Well, the parliament has no real powers but if the radical hardliners do well, if the Stability Front does well, that may narrow the government’s room for flexibility on key issues like the nuclear programme. It advocates a highly confrontational approach to foreign policy and is quite prepared to accept going beyond accepted international norms of behaviour. The government does not want to have its hands tied so it will hope for a pliable parliament that faithfully reflects its decisions. The ultra-extreme conservatives would not provide that.

4. How important is the turnout in today’s vote?

It’s critical. Turnout in the presidential election was quite low - a little over fifty per cent. The regime wants this election to legitimise its policies so there’s been a constant barrage of propaganda appealing to people’s patriotic instincts. Slogans like: "A vote cast is a punch in the eye of the enemy”. The enemy being the US, Israel, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States etc. They want the vote to be a gesture of defiance to the West. If there’s a high turnout, they will be able to say: look, the people of Iran are behind their government. There will be no outside monitoring of the vote.

On the other hand, staying at home is now virtually the only way opponents of the regime have of registering their protest. The main reformist parties and supporters of the Green Movement have either been excluded or are boycotting the vote. Their supporters are expected to stay at home.

5. What are the issues that have dominated this election?

Well, given their importance to ordinary Iranians, you might have expected issues like the nuclear programme and the state of the economy to have figured very strongly. They haven’t. Unemployment, falling living standards, inflation, the falling value of the rial and the nuclear programme have barely got a look in. The emphasis has been more on which of the groups standing best represents the values of the Islamic Revolution.