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Iran’s elections: The players, the games, the stakes

Behrouz Mehri, AFP | An Iranian woman walks past electoral posters in downtown Tehran on February 22, 2016.

Iranians go to the polls Friday to vote for the unicameral parliamant and the supervisory Assembly of Experts. FRANCE 24 looks at how the 2016 vote could prove particularly decisive for the future of the Islamic Republic.


Iran will hold two simultaneous elections on February 26: one for the unicameral Majlis (parliament) and the other for the influential Assembly of Experts.

The Majlis-e Shoraye Islami (or Majlis, for short) is a 290-seat parliament whose members serve four-year terms. Five seats are reserved for religious minorities, including Jews, Christians and Zoroastrians, proportionate to their populations.

The Assembly of Experts of the Leadership – or Majlis-e-Khobregan-e Rahbari, in Persian – is referred to simply as the Assembly of Experts in the English-language press. The assembly is made up of 88 mujtahids, or Islamic scholars, who are elected to eight-year terms. Under the constitution, this body is charged with leadership issues, including supervising, selecting and – if necessary – firing Iran’s Supreme Leader.

Candidates vetted, and rejected

Candidates in both elections must be approved by the Guardian Council, a powerful group comprising 12 members directly or indirectly selected by the Supreme Leader.

This year, more than 6,200 candidates – including 586 women – have been approved to run for the Majlis. But the Guardian Council rejected nearly half of this year's 12,000 applicants; of the 3,000 reformist candidates nearly 99 percent were barred from running, according to media reports.

The Guardian Council approved only 166 of the 801 candidates running for a spot on the Assembly of Experts, according to state media. Officially, selection is based on the candidate’s grasp of Islamic jurisprudence via written and oral exams. But critics say political considerations play a key role in the decisions of the conservative, hardline Guardian Council.

Eye on Supreme Leader's succession

This year the stakes are especially high for the Assembly of Experts election: At 76, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is ailing, and the new assembly could well be charged with picking his successor over the course of the next eight years. Given the absolute powers enjoyed by the Supreme Leader, the choice would determine the very future of Iran. The succession issue has put the spotlight on an election that is often overlooked by many Iranians.

The Guardian Council’s vetting process in the 2016 race was carefully monitored with the media spotlight focused on Seyyed Hassan Khomeini, grandson of the Islamic Republic's first Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Supporters of the charismatic 43-year-old call him the “Keepsake of the Imam”, using the highest honourific title in Shiite Islam for his revered grandfather.

A mid-ranking cleric, Khomeini is considered close to Iran’s reformists. His supporters hoped his inclusion in the Assembly of Experts would sow the seeds of a more moderate Iran. But in a sign that conservatives are tightening their grip, Khomeini was disqualified from running. The Guardian Council cited his lack of religious qualifications, drawing harsh condemnations from moderates including former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a leading moderate figure and member of the Assembly of Experts.

Days before the election, Iranian President Hassan Rohani released the names of 16
candidates including Rafsanjani who have formed a bloc calling themselves the "Friends of Moderation" and uniting under the campaign slogan, "Moderation is Islam".

Within the assembly a conservative majority bloc is likely to be led by hardline clerics such as Guardian Council head Ahmad Jannati and Mohammad Yazdi, the current chairman of the Assembly of Experts.

Since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Iranian elections have exposed the fundamental tensions between elected officials and religious authorities with absolute power. Those tensions rise to the fore in the Majlis election, which determines the composition of conservatives and reformists in parliament, a balance of power that dominates Iranian politics.

This year reformist and moderate candidates have formed an alliance, hoping to challenge the conservative lawmakers who currently hold a majority in the Majlis.

The parliamentary election is widely viewed as something of a referendum on Rohani's moderate policies, particularly his outreach to the West. The president and his allies received a popularity boost following the July 14 landmark nuclear deal that curbs Iran's nuclear activities in return for the lifting of sanctions.

Iran’s weak political party system leaves the Majlis open to factionalism and intense competition between political currents. If Rohani’s pragmatic allies lose seats in the parliament, the Iranian president will have to confront a combative legislature to advance his agenda ahead of 2017 presidential elections.


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