Tehran, Iran – On the eve of the general election for Iran‘s 290-member parliament, the mood is heavy in the cold and rainy capital as the polls come amid escalating political tensions, economic struggles and concerns over public apathy.
The country’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani have called for a high voter turnout, and asked the public to come together as they did during recent crises including the United States‘ assassination of General Qassem Soleimani in January.
Nearly 58 million people are eligible to vote on preselected lists of candidates for Iran’s 11th 290-seat parliament.
Here is what you need to know about the vote:
Why is this election important?
The vote is key, as it is the first parliamentary election after the US withdrew from the nuclear deal between Iran and world powers in 2018 and reimposed sanctions against Tehran, including on its oil and banking sectors.
The financial measures put Iran’s economy into a tailspin, with inflation reaching 33.5 percent and growth declining by at least six percent last year.
The vote will therefore determine the direction of the country as it grapples with a worsening economic crisis and a punishing “maximum pressure” campaign by the US. It is seen as a test of Rouhani’s popularity and his reformist-moderate camp, which dominated parliament after voters handed them a parliamentary majority in 2016 on the back of the deal.
According to Tehran-based political commentator and analyst Mohammed Eslami, the vote will “reflect the way people want the government to approach the West after the breakdown [of] the deal”.
“It will tell whether people want more cooperation with [the] West, or with Russia, China and tapping into domestic potentials instead,” he told Al Jazeera.
The vote also acts as a prelude to the presidential election that will be held next year.
“The results of this poll will reflect public temperament about who might be president next,” said Eslami. “If the next parliament is a conservative one, it will put pressure on Rouhani on domestic and external issues.”
But since all legislation passed by parliament has to then be approved by the Guardian Council of the Constitution, a powerful 12-member body that acts as the country’s constitutional watchdog, the extent to which it is effective is questionable.
“The parliament’s influence over critical national security and foreign policy issues will be minimal, as the ultimate decisions are taken by Iran’s Leader Ayatollah Khamenei,” said political analyst Mohammed Hashemi, referring to the fact that half of the body is chosen by the Supreme Leader himself.
While the parliament is responsible for passing legislation in Iran, approving the annual budget ratifying international agreements and treaties, it has little say in the country’s foreign affairs.
Instead, it plays a more important role in economic and other domestic politics, something average voters are aware of.
“This vote is about domestic issues, it’s about the economy, security, democracy, women and human rights,” said Roya Hashemi, an 18-year-old student in Tehran, who will be boycotting the elections.
For Mohamed Maleki, a 31-year-old journalist who will be voting in Tehran, “this vote is about Iran’s economic conditions [because] we want a parliament to resolve our high levels of unemployment and poor living conditions.”
The vote comes amid sharp criticisms of the powerful Guardian Council after it disqualified more than 70,000 hopefuls ahead of the elections. Most of those eliminated from the parliamentary race were reformists candidates, including 81 current lawmakers.
Leading pro-reform politicians have criticised the move, saying it limits their chance at winning the elections, but the Council said ahead of the vote that measures taken were not politically motivated.
The move has made it more difficult for reformists to win many seats in the parliament, according to analysts.
“It is highly unlikely if not impossible for reformists to win another vote or gain a majority in the new parliament, given the extent of disqualification of their candidates,” Hashemi told Al Jazeera ahead of the vote.
The vote also comes amid high voter apathy and expectations of a low turnout, especially in big cities.
“People in big cities are generally dissatisfied with both groups [reformists and conservatives] and disillusioned with the possibility of change through the election,” Saeid Golkar, assistant professor in the Department of Political Science and Public Service at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, told Al Jazeera.
“But in small cities and rural areas, participation should still be around 55-60 percent, mainly because the election in small towns is not about politics, but [local issues such as] distribution of rent, and power, family and tribe disputes,” he added.
Most people Al Jazeera spoke to ahead of the vote said they would not be taking part.
“I am boycotting the election. None of the candidate lists will resolve what we need most: a better economy, democracy and human rights,” said 31-year-old Mohammed, a librarian in Tehran’s Enqelab Square, who did not wish to share his surname for fear of repercussions.
Who are the major factions?
Parliamentary candidates in Iran are usually aligned with reformists or conservatives, also referred to as principlists. These are the two main political currents.
The conservatives are traditionally seen as supportive of greater state intervention, socially and economically, and most of them did not support the nuclear deal and negotiations with the US.
On the other hand, reformists pushed for the nuclear deal and are seen to be supportive of a more open-market economy.
Iran elections: Voter apathy
But while reformists are considered more pro-West compared to the conservative camp, the division of factions is not so straightforward.
“The country is not clearly divided between reformists that are allegedly pro-Western on one side, and conservatives that are allegedly anti-Western on the other,” Mohammad Marandi, professor of English literature at the University of Tehran, told Al Jazeera. “There is a wide spectrum of numerous camps on each side.”
Marandi explained that within each political bloc, there are various views on issues including the nuclear deal, foreign policy and relations with the West.
Political analyst and commentator Eslami agreed, adding that foreign policy was a defining issue.
“Some conservatives are open to forging relations with the West and were supportive of the nuclear deal, while others were not,” said Eslami.
According to Foad Izadi, an associate professor of American Studies for a doctorate programme at the University of Tehran, “While principlists question the idea of rapprochement with the West and tend to be more religious in their outlook on social policies, reformists are more interested in reducing tensions with the West.”
Who’s expected to win, and why?
Following mass disqualifications of reformist candidates, the election this time will likely be a competition between conservatives gathered around Tehran’s former mayor Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, who supported the 2015 nuclear deal, and ultra-conservatives who rejected it.
“After most well-known moderates were disqualified, the election will be between different factions of hardliners,” said Golkar.
“Some of these factions are ‘technocratic’ factions such as Ghalibaf and his supporters, while others are more ideological hardliners such as the Paydari Front,” explained Golkar.
The Paydari Front is considered an ultra-conservative bloc that tends to advocate the principles that led to the Islamic Revolution and the Islamic Republic.
According to Hashemi, “It is safe to say that Iran’s 11th parliament will be under the control of conservatives, which will likely mean tougher years for Rouhani and lead to rising tensions in Iran’s internal and international politics.”
“The new parliament will [be] comprise[d] of parliamentarians who have mostly taken blatant positions against [the] 2015 nuclear deal,” he added.
Who are key candidates to watch?
Although Iran has more than 250 parties, Iranian politics revolves around political currents.
Some of the leading names that emerged in Tehran ahead of the election include: reformist candidate Majid Ansari, conservative candidate Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, and Morteza Agha Tehrani, who represents the ultra-conservative current.
After the Guardian Council’s disqualifications, the reformist bloc’s policymaking committee said that they would no longer put a list forward in Tehran but allowed parties to announce their lists independently.
Reformist candidate Ansari is a cleric and former lawmaker who served as a vice president to both Rouhani and former President Mohammad Khatami. He is currently a member of the Expediency Council, a body tasked with resolving disputes between the parliament and the Guardian Council.
“If Ansari makes [it] into parliament, he will continue Rouhani’s policies of advocating rapprochement with the west, and economic policies that are more neoliberal,” said Izadi.
Among the conservatives, Ghalibaf is the most prominent name. The former Tehran mayor ran against Rouhani in the last presidential election and is known to be an ambitious technocrat.
Meanwhile, Agha Tehrani is a cleric and ultra-conservative politician and secretary-general of the Front of Islamic Revolution Stability, another name for the Paydari group.
According to Marandi, while the Paydari group is on the radical end of the spectrum when it comes to the conservative-principalist camp, Ghalibaf represents the more centrist side of the camp.
Izadi agrees: “Both Ghaliba and Tehrani belong to the principalist camp, but Ghalibaf represents a more moderate side to it. Both criticise Rouhani about his performance economically and [his] leniency towards the West.”