In the wake of an almost-war situation with the United States of America, with tensions still persisting, an economy in dire straits crippled by continuous sanctions, continuing anti regime protests that are refusing to die down despite stronghanded action by the regime, the Islamic Republic of Iran has begun preparations for elections to the 290 member parliament or Majlis scheduled for February 21, 2020. The last elections to the Majlis were held in February 2016.

The Islamic Republic of Iran elects at the national level the President who is head of state and head of government; the Majlis or Parliament which has 290 seats of which 14 are reserved for non Muslim minorities; and an "Assembly of Experts" which elects the Supreme Leader currently Ayatollah Khamenei. City and Village Council elections are held every four years throughout the country. The President is elected for a four-year term by the people. Elections to the Parliament and the Presidential elections are held separately.

President Rouhani had won the last Presidential election in 2017 defeating his conservative rival Ebrahim Raisi. The Parliament or Islamic Consultative Assembly (Majlis-e Shura-ye Eslami) has 290 members, elected for a four-year term in multi- and single-seat constituencies. Elections for the Assembly of Experts are held every eight years. All candidates have to be approved by the Guardian Council.

To be a candidate for election to the Majlis a person has to:

· Be an Iranian citizen

· Be a supporter of the Islamic Republic, pledging loyalty to constitution

· Be a practicing Muslim (unless running to represent one of the religious minorities in Iran)

· Not have a "notorious reputation"

· Be in good health, between the ages of 30 and 75.

Grounds for disqualification include

· mental impairment

· active support for the monarchy or for political parties and organizations deemed illegal or which have been charged with anti-government activity,

· conversion to another faith or renouncing the Islamic faith,

· judged guilty of corruption, treason, fraud, bribery,

· being an addict or trafficker or having been found guilty of violating Sharia law.

· Government ministers, members of the Guardian Council and High Judicial Council are banned from running for office, as is the Head of the Administrative Court of Justice, the Head of General Inspection, some civil servants and religious leaders and any member of the armed forces.

Voters must be Iranian citizens aged 18 or over.

The 285 directly elected seats are elected from 196 constituencies, which are a mix of single and multi-member. In single-member constituencies the leading candidates must receive at least one-fourth of the votes in the first round. If no candidate passes this threshold, a second round is held with the two highest-vote candidates. In multi-member constituencies, voters cast as many votes as there are seats available; candidates must receive votes from at least one-fourth of the voters to be elected; if not all the seats are filled in the first round of voting, a second round is held with twice the number of candidates as there are seats to be filled or all the original candidates if there are fewer than double the number of seats.

The two main blocs in the Majlis are the conservatives going under the label “Principlists Grand Coalition” or just known as principlists and the List of Hope or Reformists associated with President Rouhani’s Government. In the 2016 elections reformists, centrists and moderate conservatives together won 41 percent of parliamentary seats. Hardliners won only 29 percent. Independents were able to secure 28 percent of the seats.

The 12 member Guardian Council has been a major instrument used to ensure that the conservative hold on power is ensured. It comprises six Islamic faqihs or experts selected by the Supreme Leader of Iran, and the other six are jurists nominated by the Head of the Judicial system who is also appointed by the Supreme Leader and approved by the Iranian Parliament.But despite its power the last election saw the reformists do well with voters who believed that the conclusion of the nuclear deal under President Rouhani would end Iran’s isolation and help improve the economy and loosen the harsh conservative rule that had marked the previous decades since the revolution.

In the years since the increasing economic distress; the tensions with the United States of America; the collapse of the nuclear deal and the possibility of further conflict and economic deprivation coupled with corruption had disillusioned many supporters of the reformist camp. The official current unemployment rate stands at 12.5% but it is believed to be double that for Iran’s millions of young people, who accuse the establishment of economic mismanagement and corruption. The Rouhani regime has also failed to fulfill the promises of reform that it had made to the Iranian nation-lacking the necessary will and ability.

Moreoever many reformist politicians and groups, including an organisation led by former president Mohammad Khatami, had also criticised the 2017-18 upheaval, when protesters rallied against economic hardship and political repression.

Meanwhile the domestic nationwide economic protests prior to General Qassem Soleimani’s assassination had also rattled the regime and the conservatives. Supreme Leader Khamenei who had blamed the USA and Israel for fomenting the unrest and ordered all means to be taken to quell it, was said to be concerned with the anger in small working-class towns, whose lower-income voters had been a major support bloc for the Islamic Republic. Soleimani’s assassination; the retaliatory attack on a US base in Iraq; his funeral and chelum(40thday) ceremonies had provided the conservatives an opportunity to reignite Iranian nationalism especially among the youth hoping to undermine support for the reformists.

The Guardian Council had played its role. Of the over 14000 individuals who had sought to be candidates the Guardian Council had disqualified 9000 including sitting members of the Majlis. The majority were potential reformist candidates with a few conservatives thrown in. Reports suggest that in some places where the Guardian Council though a reformist could win, it disqualified the candidate. President Rouhani whose own son in law had been disqualified had publicly lashed out at the Guardian Council.

Speaking at the mausoleum of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini during annual celebrations of the 1979 revolution, Rouhani said that Khomeini had insisted that people must participate in all elections and have the right to choose. Those who prevented people from choosing or voting were not following Imam Khomeini’s approach. He had warned of threats to the country’s “democracy and national sovereignty” after the disqualification of the candidates.

The Guardian Council had also been accused of corruption with Mahmoud Sadeqi, a Tehran legislator saying that some people were being invited to Seyyed Azizullah Mosque to pay up to 2 billion tomans to get the Guardian Council’s confirmation.

With most analysts predicting a low turnout getting the youth vote out had become imperative for the conservatives. The Ayatollah Khamenei had said there should be a new, younger "revolutionary" legislature loyal to the regime to ensure that a homogenous Islamic Republic would remain on the revolutionary path even after his passing. Such a Parliament would be a prelude to the election of a similarly "revolutionary" administration in the 2021 presidential vote. The regime was also planning to reduce the vote threshold to win a seat from 25% to 20%.

Some observers believed the Basij militia could be used to up the voter turnout and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps' (IRGC) weekly magazine, Sobh-e Sadeq, had said in its latest edition that only a high voter turnout could help the regime prevail against US President Donald Trump's maximum pressure strategy against the country.

For the Reformists there were few options in the wake of the disqualifications of reformists by the Guardian Council—boycott the elections; unconditional participation-advocated by former President Mohammed Khatami; conditional participation, supported by Abbas Abdi, that that if the system opened a little bit, the reformists should participate.

In terms of campaigning Mohammad Reza Qalibaf-former mayor of Tehran, a relative of Khamenie, a former General of the Revolutionary Guards, and once lauded by Imam Khomeini- had launched a national campaign by his Progress and Justice of the Islamic Iran Party to send young people to the Majlis calling them neo-principlists. His party was being looked at as a promising contender in the elections. Alongside him the Piedary party whose spiritual leader was Mohammad Taqi Misbah, the Mo'talefeh party whose leader was Asadullah Badamchian, were also determined to have a larger share of parliamentary seats.

Qalibaf was said to have been involved in financial corruption. President Rouhani had earlier launched a frontal attack against him stating during a live televised debate in May 2017 that Qalibaf used "dirty money" in his election campaign in 2005. Another candidate, Es'haq Jahangiri disclosed 54 corruption cases surrounding the Tehran municipality under Qalibaf; selling city properties to insiders at one tenth of their real price. President Rouhani's campaign manager said Qalibaf's son was involved in financial corruption cases amounting to 12 trillion rials (approximately $3 billion at the time). In 2016, Qalibaf's wife was said to have been the prime suspect in a corruption case documented by Shaq newspaper.

Others who had declared their candidacy and been cleared by the Guardian Council include:-

Mostafa Mir Salim: The head of the conservative Islamic Coalition Party. He was culture minister from 1994 to 1997 under President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. He ran for president in 2017 and finished in third place

Masoud Pezeshkian: The deputy speaker of the Majles and a reformist. He was minister of health from 2001 to 2005 under President Mohammad Khatami.

Majid Ansari: A reformist cleric and spokesperson of the left-wing Association of Combatant He was vice president for parliamentary affairs from 2004 to 2005 under President Khatami and vice president for legal affairs under Rouhani from 2016 to 2017.

It is unlikely that the reformists and moderates would score as well as last time unless President Donald Trump, as is his wont, suddenly changes his stance vis a vis Iran. With Hezbollah now taking the lead in directing the Shia militias in Iraq on the foreign policy front the impact on the conservatives of the earthquake caused by Soleimani’s assassination could be somewhat mitigated giving a breather to the conservatives in Iran.

Despite all the charges surrounding him, Qalibaf was said to have been a good mayor of Tehran. Qalibaf used his seven-year tenure as mayor to complete much-appreciated development projects. New green areas were created and public art appeared on the city’s walls. Cinemas and cycling routes had been built and historic neighbourhoods renovated with an old prison in the middle of the city being turned into a park. He paid particular attention to improving transport in the congested metropolis.

With moderates like Mohammad Reza Aref the leader of the pro-Rouhani faction in the Majles; Parvaneh Salahshouri the reformist leader of the women’s parliamentary group in the Majles; and Ali Larijani the conservatie speaker of the Majlis opting out Qalibaf, with his relative Supreme Leader Khamenie’s blessings, might just succeed in securing the numbers in the Majlis that he is hoping for.

But it is still early days—much can happen.