World Politics

Iran elections to be dominated by hard-liners as young people refuse to vote: 'It's a joke'

Key Points
  • This week will see 7,148 candidates vetted by Iran's unelected religious and legal authorities compete for 290 seats across 31 provinces.
  • Much of the country's youth, particularly in the capital Tehran, plan to stay at home, foreshadowing what's expected to be the lowest voter turnout in years.
Iranians walk past electoral posters and fliers during the last day of election campaign in Tehran on February 19, 2020. - Iran's electoral watchdog defended its decision to disqualify thousands of candidates for a crucial parliamentary election in two days, as a lacklustre campaign neared its end.
ATTA KENARE | AFP via Getty Images

Iran is holding its parliamentary elections Friday, and one thing seems all but certain: It will be a major victory for the country's conservative hard-liners.

This week will see 7,148 candidates vetted by Iran's unelected religious and legal authorities compete for 290 seats across 31 provinces. But much of the country's youth, particularly in the capital Tehran, plan to stay at home, foreshadowing what's expected to be the lowest voter turnout in years.

"I'm not going to vote, and none of my friends are going to vote too," Mehdi, a business owner in his 20s living in Tehran, told CNBC. "Nothing is going to change with or without us voting. … They decided everything for the country, without considering the parliament," he said, referring to the ruling regime.

"So it's a joke to even have a parliament. We're protesting against them by not participating in the elections."

'Least competitive' election in years

Iranian activists and country experts point to the sheer lack of competition manufactured by the regime's ruling lawmakers: 7,296 of 15,000 people who applied to run for parliament were disqualified by the Guardian Council, a 12-person board of experts in constitutional and Islamic law largely appointed by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei that wields significant power in Iranian politics.

"These will be the least competitive parliamentary elections in Iran since 2004 when reformists and incumbents were also disqualified en masse," Barbara Slavin, director of the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council, told CNBC. "If history repeats itself, a conservative will also be elected president in 2021."

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei gives his first Friday sermon after eight years in the Imam Khomeini Musalla, in Tehran, Iran on January 17, 2020.
Iranian Supreme Leader Press Office | Handout | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images)

The Guardian Council oversees the elections, decides who can run and has veto power over the parliament's legislation, making it more influential than the popularly elected body, and its highly conservative nature has led it to frequently ban reformist candidates from running for public office.

Calls for an election boycott

This year, the council also banned 80 sitting reformist lawmakers from running again.

"With the exception of the first post-revolutionary parliamentary elections in 1980, the Islamic Republic's parliament has only ever allowed a narrow range of politicians to run for office," said Arash Azizi, an Iranian historian and analyst, in a report last week. "But this time the Guardian Council has gone much further, effectively expelling the reformist faction of the regime from the political realm."

Iranians within and outside the country, including imprisoned activist Narges Mohammadi and former minister Mostafa Tajzadeh, have openly called for a boycott of the elections. The hashtags #BoycottIranShamElections and #MyVoteRegimeChange are being widely tweeted by activists.

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Meanwhile, Khamenei and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani are urging voters to go to the polls. "Participation in the election is a stamp of support for the ways of the regime and will thus lead to security," the supreme leader recently announced. "I beg you not to be passive," Rouhani said last week.

Many Iranians are questioning the purpose of voting, "particularly when voting doesn't really result in policy changes that help ordinary Iranians," said Sanam Vakil, deputy head of Chatham House's MENA Program. "It's really just about legitimizing the Islamic Republic as part of a public relations stunt rather than having a policy impact."

"And maybe by not voting, they are making as much of a point as if they were voting," she said. "It's a protest in itself."

Severe economic pain

Much has changed since Iran's last parliamentary elections in 2016, which were considered a substantial victory for Iran's reformists and came amid a swell of popular optimism for a more open country and economy.

The 2015 Iranian nuclear deal, or JCPOA (Join Comprehensive Plan of Action) had just been signed by multiple countries including the U.S. and European Union states, and Iran's economic growth for the year was projected to be as high as 6%. Many of Iran's voters looked to reformist candidates' promises of a more open Iran and better economic prospects stemming from the nuclear deal, which lifted international sanctions.

Those elections saw a reported 62% turnout, just above the prior historical average for parliamentary elections of 60.5%. Turnout on Friday is expected to be significantly lower than in several past elections, suggesting a loss of faith in the Islamic Republic's electoral system and severe pessimism under a buckling economy.

The Trump administration's withdrawal from the nuclear deal in 2018, sweeping reimposition of sanctions, and continued corruption and mismanagement within the country have wrought severe economic pain on the Islamic Republic, particularly impacting ordinary Iranians, regional experts say.

An Iranian man holds-up a placard as he attends in front of a University to mark the memory of the victims of the Ukraine Boeing 737 passenger plane in Tehrans business district on January 11, 2020.
Morteza Nikoubazl | NurPhoto | Getty Images)

The IMF estimated a staggering 9.5% contraction for Iran's economy in 2019, and unemployment and inflation are soaring. A poll conducted by Tehran University reportedly predicted a mere 25% turnout in the capital city, while others are expecting around 50% nationwide of the country's roughly 60 million eligible voters.

The Iranians who spoke to CNBC also expressed their anger over the hundreds of civilians killed by security forces during protests in November and January. The November protests were triggered by a 300% hike in fuel prices, and the latter after Iranian forces admitted to unintentionally shooting down a passenger jet with 176 people on board — the majority Iranian citizens. The downing came amid a retaliatory attack on U.S. troops in Iraq after the killing of top Iranian commander Qasem Soleimani on Jan. 3.

Is Trump's 'maximum pressure' policy to blame?

Regional analysts have long warned that a more hard-line government was a major risk of the Trump administration's "maximum pressure" policy on Iran. Tensions between Washington and Tehran have skyrocketed amid a series of escalatory moves from both sides over the last year and a half in particular.

"In response to max pressure, Tehran is looking to consolidate elites, with uber hardliners filling every major institution," Behnam Ben Taleblu, senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told CNBC. This is especially critical as Khamenei is now in his early 80s.

But he argued that Trump is not primarily to blame, noting that Iran's clerical establishment was restricting reformist politics and cracking down on dissent long before the current U.S. administration. "It's the Islamic Republic that's been narrowing its political spectrum ever since the 1979 Islamic Revolution."

Vakil sees the current political forecast as a clear consequence of maximum pressure. "It's ironic," she said, "because the Trump administration sought to alter the behavior of the Islamic Republic and instead it's empowering that behavior."