Does Iran’s Parliamentary Election Matter?

TEHRAN – Does Iran’s upcoming Parliamentary election on March 14 deserve to be taken seriously? Or is it simply a sham vote for an emasculated institution?
Paradoxically, Iranian elections are abnormal by both democratic and autocratic standards. While they are neither free nor fair, there are real differences among candidates, and the outcomes are often unpredictable. In contrast to rigged elections in which the victors are pre-determined, Iran’s system allows competitive elections among pre-selected candidates. Hardly anyone predicted the reformist Mohammed Khatami’s resounding presidential victory in 1997, and even fewer foresaw hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad’s victory in 2005.
For those who view Iran’s democratic glass as being half full, the March 14 Majles elections will mark the 28th national election since the founding of the Islamic Republic in 1979, further entrenching a political culture unique in the Middle East. As Iran scholar Mohsen Milani puts it, “With all its serious flaws, it is through this process that changes in Iranian policy and behavior can be expected.”
But there are valid reasons to view Iran’s democratic glass as being half empty. Candidates deemed insufficiently pious or lacking loyalty to the country’s theocratic constitution cannot run. This year, hundreds of reformist candidates were disqualified. Even a grandson of Ayatollah Khomeini decided against running after he was initially disqualified and his religious values and political loyalties were called into question.       
What’s more, the 290-seat Majles is a second-tier player in Iran’s power structure. On the surface, it looks like any other parliament. Its members draft legislation, ratify international treaties, and sign off on the nation’s annual budget. In theory, they even have the authority to remove cabinet ministers and impeach the president for misconduct.
In practice, however, all of the Majles’s decisions are subject to the approval of the Guardian Council, an unelected body of twelve jurists (all of whom are either directly or indirectly appointed by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei) that has the constitutional authority to vet all electoral candidates and veto any parliamentary legislation. Ironically, in 2003 the reformist parliament passed legislation aimed at limiting the power of the Guardian Council, which predictably rejected it.
Nonetheless, in a political system in which decisions are made by consensus, the Majles can play an important role in framing national debates. The reformist-dominated Majles that served from 2000-2004 comprised allies of Khatami who sought to expand the realm of acceptable political discourse, champion democracy and human rights, and advocate a more conciliatory approach to foreign policy.

By contrast, the current parliament, elected following a massive purge of reformists, began its inaugural session with chants of “Death to America.” Its members share Ahmedinejad’s social conservatism and aversion to diplomatic compromise on the nuclear issue.

In the upcoming Majles elections, the battle between conservatives and reformists has largely been superseded by one between hardliners sympathetic to Ahmedinejad and more pragmatic conservatives less beholden to revolutionary ideology.    
The latter group is coalescing under the leadership of former chief nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani, Tehran mayor Mohammmed Bagher Ghalibaf, and former Revolutionary Guard commander Mohsen Rezaii. While these individuals were themselves considered hardliners three years ago, today, compared to Ahmedinejad, they appear moderate.

The hardliners’ Achilles heel is Ahmedinejad’s mismanagement of the economy. Heat shortages at the height of this year’s bitter winter left more than 60 people dead, and Iran is perhaps the only major oil producer whose population claims that economic conditions have worsened despite a tripling of oil prices.