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Source: Asharq Al-Awsat

Mar 1, 2024

Iran: Twin Elections and Ayatollahs' Solo Performance

By Amir Taheri

Iranians are expected to go to the polls today in what many analysts believe is the weirdest general elections in the 45-year history of the Islamic Republic.

In fact, what is on offer is a dual exercise.

One is to choose the members of the Islamic Consultative Assembly, a 290-seats unicameral legislature charged with passing laws and approving the national budget and treaties with foreign powers.

The second election is for the Assembly of Experts, an 88-seat body of theologians whose task is to supervise the work of the “Supreme Guide” (Wali al-Faqih) and, in case he is incapacitated or dies, choose a successor.

But why describe the exercise as weird?

To start with, no one knows how many people are qualified to vote. On 2 February the Islamic Ministry of Interior said that over 65 million Iranians were qualified but wouldn’t say how many had actually registered.

On 17 February that figure was brought down to 61 million, ostensibly because exiled Iranians have the right to vote only in presidential elections. But, again, it wasn’t clear how many would-be voters had actually registered.

Next, the ministry cut campaigning time to just over a week while imposing a list of do-s and don’ts.

Islamic Consultative Assembly candidates were not allowed to criticize any policies of the regime past or present or offer alternatives to policies currently pursued by the current administration. Nor were they allowed to criticize incumbent officials or attack their constituency rivals.

Strict limits imposed on election expenditure by candidates also meant that they would have limited opportunities for advertising their brand. In some cases candidates had to limit their campaign to one or two public meetings attended by a handful of friends and relatives.

In dozens of constituencies, candidates were unable to organize market-place walkouts to press flesh and chit chat with voters because of security concerns. In half a dozen constituencies, candidates were not even allowed to enter the town they hoped to represent.

There was also much confusion regarding who was who as dozens of lists were published, some of them containing the same names but presenting themselves as competitors.

A few wannabes decided to drop out at the last minute ostensibly because they wished co-listers to win. Even more strange things happened with the Assembly of Experts. Despite desperate efforts to persuade mullahs to register as candidates, the authorities failed to field 174 candidates, two for each seat. They were left with 30 seats short of candidates and, by this writing, appear to want to fill the gap by allowing the incumbents to continue as members without seeking re-election.

The “expert” candidates were also ordered not to raise any issues unrelated to their limited role. But even then they were not allowed to criticize the current “Wali al-Faqih”, Ayatollah Ali Husseini Khamenei. Asked how they “supervised” the “Wali al-Faqih” most candidates said: No comment! One member who answered added to the mystery by saying that the “experts” didn’t even receive a report of the ayatollah’s activities let alone supervise him.

Because of the ayatollah's age and concerns about his health the issue of succession was also raised but met with silence by all except two incumbents Ayatollah Jazayeri and Ayatollah Araki.

According to Jazayeri a successor has already been chosen but his name couldn’t be revealed for fear he might be assassinated before taking over.

Araki’s version was different.

He said: Only 3 members know the name of the successor and would reveal it when the time comes.

For over a year speculation has been rife about attempts to name Mujtaba, Khamenei’s favorite son and a Hojat al-Islam in his own right as the next “Wali al-Faqih”.

In the final week of the campaign, however, rumors have spread about Mujtaba not being interested in a political career, thus allowing his younger brother Massoud, the ayatollah’s closest adviser, to consider making a bid.

However, some analysts believe that Khamenei himself isn’t keen on promoting any of his sons as the next leader.

As might have been expected, most critics and opponents of the Islamic regime have called for a total boycott of the two elections, a pattern set over the past four decades.

This time, however, the boycott call comes from all sides of the political spectrum and includes hundreds of former officials, a majority of the so-called “reformist” faction plus such figures as former President Mahmud Ahmadinejad and former Speaker of the Islamic Majlis Al-Ardeshir Larijani.

Thus the only issue of interest in the twin elections is voter turnout. The ayatollah has called for a maximum turnout without saying what he means by maximum.

President Ibrahim Raisi’ entourage, however, hope that the turnout would be higher than the 40 per cent reached when he was elected.

Former Islamic Majlis member Mahmud Sadeghi, disqualified this time, predicted a turnout of 6 to 9 per cent. President Hassan Rouhani’s closest associate Mahmud Waezi puts the likely turnout at 30 per cent.

Whatever the turnout it is clear that not a single critic of the current domestic and foreign policies will be elected.

The ayatollah has repeatedly said that the twin elections constitute a referendum on his regime which, being at war in his terms, needs maximum unity and resolve. For the first time he has assumed the task of campaigning as a soloist. Unable to travel to provinces he has been receiving potential voters brought to him from all over the country.

Thus, this time around, one cannot even expect cosmetic changes of the kind previously allowed as a means of softening the regime’s image.

The two assemblies are likely to return as more ardently committed than before to follow the “Supreme Guide” wherever he is heading.

It is in that sense that the twin elections have some interest. They will show that the Islamic Republic is not only hostile to any structural reform but also unwilling to change its behavior.

That clarification will force the regime’s many opponents, both inside and outside Iran to abandon old fantasies about its change of behavior let alone readiness to seek some accommodation with real or imagined foes.

Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987

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