#IranVotes // An Introduction

On February 26, citizens in the Islamic Republic of Iran will have the opportunity to cast a vote for the first time since the 2013 presidential elections that swept Hassan Rouhani into office.

Since then, the Rouhani administration has been locked in a seemingly never-ending battle with the most hardline elements of the political establishment over issues ranging from foreign policy, through to cultural censorship and information controls.

Some of the noisiest criticisms of the Rouhani administration in the last few years have come from Iran’s Parliament. The last parliamentary elections in 2012 were notable for a large-scale reformist boycott, with memories of the chaotic 2009 presidential election still fresh in voters’ minds. As a result, conservative candidates cruised to victory, and still enjoy a commanding lead in Parliament today.

Will reformist and moderate voters turn out in higher numbers this year to deliver a less hostile Parliament? Or will a rigged political system and continuing voter apathy deliver another conservative majority?

Over the next couple of months we’ll be investigating Iranian citizens’ political engagement on Twitter, reporting on the key issues dominating the campaign, describing the kinds of political activities taking place on social media.

In this first edition of #IranVotes2016 we’ll provide a quick overview of the roles and responsibilities of the Iranian Parliament. How much power does it really wield in Iran’s political system? And how free and fair are these elections in reality? Let’s take a look.

Mostly Hot Air: Parliamentary Powers

Iran’s Parliament is made up of 290 representatives, drawn from 207 electoral districts from around the country. These MPs have the power to draft legislation and pass laws—so long as they do not contradict the Iranian Constitution.

So, who decides whether a law is constitutional or not? That’d be the Guardian Council. The Guardian Council is made up of 12 members—six clerics appointed by the Supreme Leader, and six jurists nominated by the head of Iran’s judiciary (who is himself appointed by the Supreme Leader).

The presence of the Guardian Council in the legislative process means that Parliament’s ability to change things is limited. Ultimately, all parliamentary legislation has to be acceptable to the Guardian Council—and to the Supreme Leader.

This has led to major showdowns in the past: former President Khatami’s parliamentary majority was vetoed by the Guardian Council in 2002 when it tried to pass a bill that cut the Guardian Council’s powers.

So if it can’t legislate independently, what power does Parliament have?

Well, it can be quite an effective oversight body for the executive branch of government. It’s able to launch investigations into government ministries, must confirm ministerial appointments, and can impeach the President or his ministers if it thinks they’re doing a lousy job.

It’s not shy about using this power, either: Rouhani’s first choices for the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Science, and the Ministry of Youth Affairs were all denied confirmation, and his Science Minister Reza Faraji-Dana was impeached in 2014 for allowing Green Movement activists back into universities.

If you’re still fuzzy on the details, this video from our friends at Majlis Monitor provides a nice rundown of Parliament’s role and responsibilities:

The (S)election Process: Vetting Candidates

Back in 2012, Iranian state TV characterised the parliamentary vote as “awash with democratic energy”. Given the near-anaemic levels of participation, and the lack of so much as a handful of reformist candidates in the elections, we’d call that characterisation dubious at best.

Now we’ve established what the Iranian Parliament does, it’s time to ask how democratic the system really is. State authorities like to hold Iran up as a model of democracy in the region, but in reality elections are little more than selections by the clerical elite.

In order to pass through the punishing vetting process and stand for election, Iranian citizens must comply with a huge set of restrictive criteria, including holding a masters’ degree, adhering to Islam, showing loyalty to the Constitution and the Supreme Leader, and having a spotless political (and mostly spotless criminal) record.

Our friends at Majlis Monitor have done a great job of summarising the barriers facing hopeful candidates. Check out their infographics at the links below if you want more info on:

If candidates don’t meet these tough requirements, then the Guardian Council bars them from standing. In 2012, out of the 5,395 candidates who applied to stand for election, just 3,444 were granted permission to do so—meaning that around 34% were disqualified.

How do the 2016 elections compare so far? Let’s take a look at the numbers we have so far.

Making the Cut: The Vetting Process in 2016

Earlier this week, Tasnim News Agency (very briefly) released vetting statistics showing a massive purge of parliamentary candidates, far exceeding even the purges of 2012. We grabbed the stats before they were taken down, and can present them to you below.

Mouse over the interactive charts to explore the data in full.

Choice-Free Elections: Over 8,000 candidates rejected

In the publicly-released data, 8,244 candidates were either ‘rejected’, or ‘did not meet the criteria’—a distinction that is opaque and poorly defined.

Rejection Stings: Less than 40% of candidates approved

The vetting process saw just 39% of applicants qualify as parliamentary candidates—that’s almost a reversal of the 2012 elections, where 34% of applicants were disqualified.

Stay At Home: Women disproportionately vetted out of elections

In the vast majority of provinces, women were rejected at a higher rate than men. On average, there are 3.2% fewer female candidates than female applicants in each province.

The Road Ahead: Predictions for the 2016 Elections

As evidenced by all the available data, these upcoming elections have been very tightly managed by Iran’s conservative establishment, with the Guardian Council weeding out more than half of the country’s hopeful parliamentary candidates during the vetting process.

It’s likely that the incoming Parliament will once again be dominated by conservative voices. But what will characterise voters’ conversations taking place in the run-up to February 26? Will widespread anger at the vetting process drive up apathy? Or will people make the best of a bad situation and vote for a ‘least worst’ Parliament?

In collaboration with the Berkman Centre for Internet & Society we’ll be taking to Twitter over the next month to monitor election-related chatter, to gauge enthusiasm about the contest, and to identify the hot topics dominating the campaign. Check back in the next week for more news!

Show your support

Clapping shows how much you appreciated Small Media’s story.