The upcoming votes present a complex situation for the Supreme Leader. He must decide whether to aggressively disqualify candidates and risk further alienating the public, or face the potential of a Majlis controlled by his political opponents.
During the previous election cycle in 2021, Iran experienced an underwhelming scenario. The Guardian Council, consisting of twelve members appointed by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, disqualified several prominent figures from the presidential race. This move resulted in Ebrahim Raisi winning without substantial competition. The exclusion of moderate and reformist candidates exacerbated public disinterest, leading to historically low voter turnout.
The latest election cycle, which began recently and will conclude in March 2024, involves choosing representatives for the Majlis and the Assembly of Experts—two institutions perceived to have limited influence on policy. Nonetheless, this campaign period is significant due to its potential insights into the Supreme Leader's intentions. He faces the challenge of balancing concerns about low voter turnout, the succession process, reformist strategies, and regime legitimacy following widespread protests.
The Majlis, a 290-member parliamentary body, has diminished importance in shaping policies, especially on nuclear and foreign matters. Public indifference towards its proceedings is evident, with a majority of Iranians unable to identify its current speaker. Despite this, the Majlis still contributes to consensus-building on crucial decisions. For instance, it played a role in endorsing the 2020 "Strategic Action Plan to Lift Sanctions and Protect the Iranian Nation’s Interests," supporting Khamenei's firm stance in nuclear negotiations.
The Assembly of Experts, responsible for appointing the next Supreme Leader, holds limited relevance to citizens' daily lives. Its members, predominantly clerics and all male, are seen as under Khamenei's influence, despite their constitutional mandate to oversee him. The assembly's actions are often obscure to the public, with its legitimacy questioned due to its older membership.
The 2024 elections hold symbolic significance following protests triggered by Mahsa Amini's death. Turnout holds value for regime officials as a measure of support for the Islamic Republic. Yet, past disqualifications of candidates have fueled public resentment. To appear more inclusive, the registration process for the next elections was adjusted. However, the Supreme Leader's history of sidelining potential candidates remains a concern.
Two key questions are circulating regarding the 2024 elections. First, whether reformists will participate or boycott due to past disqualifications. Second, whether figures like former president Hassan Rouhani and former Majlis speaker Ali Larijani will engage in the current cycle. While not running for Majlis seats, they may seek influence for future elections.
In 2021, Khamenei and the Guardian Council aimed to secure Raisi's victory, even if it undermined regime legitimacy. The upcoming cycle presents a dilemma: embrace inclusivity to regain public support and reconcile with estranged figures, or risk a Majlis dominated by pragmatists and reformists who challenge the current hardline approach. This decision is particularly crucial for Khamenei's longer-term succession strategy.