Iranian elections explained: Why are they so important?

The elections open the door to long-term changes in Iran

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Indy Politics

Iranians are voting in elections this weekend, and early results show very strong gains for moderates and reformists, at the expense of hard-line conservatives.

This election is arguably Iran’s most important in decades, for a variety of reasons.

What’s being elected?

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Iranians stand in line at a polling station in Qom

This round of elections is to decide who sits in the 290-seat Iranian parliament – also known as the Majlis – and the Assembly of Experts – a powerful 88-seat constitutional council.

The Majlis is elected every four years, and is in charge of creating day-to-day laws and holding the Government, led by the president, to account.

 It can and has dismissed cabinet ministers and can dismiss the president – as well as propose legislation.

The main role of the Assembly of Experts is to choose the Supreme Leader, the head of state of Iran.

Iran has had two supreme leaders since the 1979 revolution and both have served for life (so far) – though the Assembly can in theory dismiss them every eight years. 

Are the elections free and fair?

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An Iranian woman holds up a poster of Mohammad Reza Aref, a prominent reformist candidate

Most observers agree the votes have been counted properly, but the Iranian constitution is not what we would describe as a liberal democracy.

The biggest difference is that candidates for the Majlis and the Assembly of Experts have to be vetted by another constitutional body – the Guardian Council –  which is half elected by the Majlis itself and half appointed by the Supreme Leader.

At this election over 12,000 people signed up as candidates but 5,200 candidates, mostly reformists and moderates, were rejected by the Guardian Council, while another 600 withdrew. 

In this sense there is an in-built bias towards hardliners – or rather, an inbuilt bias towards whoever the Supreme Leader is.

Additionally, members of the Assembly of Experts have to be learned Islamic clerics.

Why are these elections so important?

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Ayatollah Ali Khamenei the Supreme Leader of Iran

The Assembly of Experts is most important when a Supreme Leader dies – no sitting Supreme Leader has ever been removed before their death.

Ali Khamenei, the current Supreme Leader, is aged 76. Foreign media reports suggest he may have prostate cancer and there have been rumours that he has been ill for around a decade.

This means it is very likely that the next Supreme Leader will be picked by this Assembly of Experts, who will sit until Khamenei is 84 years old. (Average life expectancy in Iran is 73 years.)

Why is choosing the next Supreme Leader so important?

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Late former supreme leader Ayatollah Khomeini returning to Iran in 1979

The Supreme Leader sits above the president and commands huge power within the Iranian constitution.

Khamenei is a hardliner and the centrepiece of the conservative establishment – his fatwas have targeted everything from music education in schools to women’s rights.

The Supreme Leader’s power to appoint half the Guardian Council that vets election candidates essentially means that the Government cannot become more reformist than the Supreme Leader allows. 

The election of a moderate or even reforming Supreme Leader would allow elections to be conducted more freely, because they would appoint the election vetting Guardian Council.

The Supreme Leader also holds the powers for directly reforming the constitution. Khamenei’s predecessor Khomeini used the power in 1989 to set up an assembly to reform the constitution.

If a hardliner is elected again, Iranians will likely have to wait until Khamenei’s successor dies for another serious chance at reform.

If a refomer or moderate is elected, Iran could change significantly.

What about the nuclear deal?

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An Iranian nuclear facility

While the economy has been a big issue at the election, the result will also be seen as cementing public approval for Hassan Rouhani’s nuclear deal.

This is important for the President, who has fulfilled one of his election promises, and who took significant criticism from hardliners in the Iranian government and press.

A bigger group of supportive MPs in parliament is also likely to allow Mr Rouhani to make the domestic changes to personal freedoms that he has promised.

What are the results showing?

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Iranian journalists follow election results at Iran's interior ministry

Results are still coming in, but as of Sunday night London time pro-Rouhani moderates have taken all 30 parliamentary seats in the capital Tehran – a huge victory. The first Conservative candidate Gholamali Haddad-Adel finished in 31st place.

Reformists are likely to have done less well outside Tehran, but the result is still significant.

In the all-important Assembly of Experts elections, the current conservative chair Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi has been forced out, while arch-hardliner Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi has also lost his seat. Moderates, including Rouhani himself, appear to have been elected to the assembly. 

Full results should be known early in the week – but the current picture is one that gives Iran its best shot at getting a moderate Supreme Leader, and its best shot at reform.

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