The first important political event in 2020 will occur on 21 February with the Majles election. So far, the most notable declared candidate for the Iranian parliament is former Tehran mayor and presidential candidate Mohammad Baquer Qalibaf. In the absence of long-term Majles speaker Ali Larijani, who has decided not to nominate himself, Qalibaf is a serious contender for the speakership in a new parliament that is most likely to be dominated by conservatives. Low voter turnout is the primary factor that will play to a conservative win. Iranians are feeling strongly discontented and alienated, especially as a result of poor economic conditions and the recent crackdown, and weak turnout is therefore expected.
In the past, the Guardian Council’s (GC) approval of reformist candidates and voter participation have been directly correlated. Interestingly, in the aftermath of the recent protests, GC spokesperson Abbas Ali Kadkhodaei gave an interview to Agence France Press stating that the council will be less restrictive in approving candidates this time round.
If that happens and voters believe they have a genuine choice between reformist and conservative candidates, they may be more willing to participate.
The political establishment also has an interest in high participation, as they see it as legitimising the Islamic Republic.
So far, some leading reformist faces in the current Majles, such as the outspoken Parvaneh Salahshouri, have withdrawn their candidacy in protest against the recent crackdown on demonstrations. The most notable reformist to emerge is Vice President Shahindokht Mollaverdi, one of the two women to occupy that post under President Hassan Rohani. (Iran has 12 VPs.)
Others are likely to come to the fore as the reformist camp debates whether it is wise to leave the field, thereby allowing the next Majles to be dominated by hardliners and conservatives.
Some reformist strategists, such as Abbas Abdi, believe the intensity of the recent protests underscores that reformism is still alive – and that it is needed in today’s political discourse. Even if reformists do decide to run and can get their candidacies approved, it is a big question whether voter participation will be high enough to get reformists and moderates into the Majles. The only event that could shift the domestic mood from its current rejection of political activity would be tangible progress in lifting sanctions and improving Iran–US relations.
Failing that, a newly conservative Majles is likely to undermine the Rohani administration and even push to impeach the president in the second half of 2020, paving the way for hardline networks to dominate the 2021 presidential election.