The campaign for the March 1 legislative elections in Iran has generated little enthusiasm.

A few days before the deadline, rare posters of candidates were plastered in the streets of Tehran, while the shadow of a record abstention hangs over the vote.

"For a long time the regime has sought to obtain legitimacy through the ballot box, with a high participation rate. This time, there have been some calls for mobilization, but ultimately it remains very much on the fringes. A bit as if the regime, ultimately , had endorsed the idea that legitimacy through the ballot box is no longer really necessary", analyzes Jonathan Piron, historian specializing in Iran for the Etopia research center in Brussels.

One of the polls published in recent weeks - a study carried out by state television - showed that more than half of Iranians remained indifferent to this election.

The abstention rate could reach its worst score since the advent of the Islamic Republic 45 years ago, experts warn.

In 2020, only 42.57% of voters went to the polling stations, according to official figures.

The vote is also the first since the vast protest movement that shook the country at the end of 2022 following the death of Mahsa Amini, a young woman arrested for a poorly worn veil.

Added to this questioning of power are recriminations linked to economic difficulties against a backdrop of galloping inflation.

For the 61 million Iranians called upon to choose their 290 deputies of the Iranian Parliament, and the 88 members of the Assembly of Experts, composed solely of clerics responsible for appointing the supreme leader, the choice is narrowing to a minimum.

Reformers wiped off the map

Until the 2020 legislative elections, the year of the invalidation of thousands of reformers, legislative candidates generally came from two political movements, those of the reformers and the conservatives.

But these new elections now mainly pit conservatives and ultraconservatives against one another.

Of the 15,200 candidates approved for the legislative elections, a record, by the Council of Guardians of the Constitution, only 20 to 30 candidates from the reformist camp appear.

An insufficient number to complete the electoral lists, according to leaders of the reform movement.

“The main list that stands out is that of Ali Motahari, a representative of the moderate conservative current. He is running in Tehran, where the political landscape is particular,” explains Jonathan Piron.

However, the resentment is such that no one escapes criticism, not even reformers and moderates in whom young people no longer believe.

A few days before the election, Ali Motahari, campaigning at a university in Tehran, was violently insulted by a student who accused him of being nothing more than a "pawn of power", after having mentioned his tortured comrades and blinded during the 2022 uprising.

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Motahari's list includes candidates from various political backgrounds, including reformer Afifeh Abedi, one of the few women allowed to compete, and four other candidates.

Women, who represent half of the Iranian electorate, only account for 12% of the 15,200 candidates for the legislative elections.

Moreover, reformers are divided among themselves on the course of action to follow.

One party calls for a boycott.

Thus, the main coalition following this trend, the Reform Front, announced its refusal to participate in these “meaningless elections”.

But another reform platform presents candidates in several provincial constituencies.

Adopting a balancing act, former reformist president Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005) called, for his part, to participate in the vote, while declaring that Iran is "very far from free and competitive elections".

As for opponents in Iran and within the diaspora, they are calling not to vote, presenting any participation as "a sign of compromise with the system."

For or against dialogue with the West

In the absence of real competition with reformers or moderates, the vote is therefore reduced to a duel between conservatives and ultraconservatives.

The latter are more hostile to dialogue with Western countries, first and foremost the United States, while the former advocate a certain pragmatism, particularly on the sensitive Iranian nuclear issue.

The real tensions between these two currents, and even within the group of "ultras", could emerge at the time of the death of the supreme guide, Ali Khamenei, appointed for life but aged 84.

Behind the scenes, several candidates for his succession and their close guards are already clashing. 

Read alsoIn Iran, Khamenei's advanced age raises the question of his succession

The guide rightly called for voting for the unity of the nation.

“Everyone must participate in the elections,” he said, urging “influential figures” to “encourage” the population to vote.

“The more enthusiastic the elections, the more national power and national security will be ensured,” he said.

“The game is completely closed”

For Jonathan Piron, the Islamic Republic has shifted "towards something of the order of a single party", he denounces, describing this election as a "fiction".

"Iranian elections have long been considered selections rather than real elections. But there was still sometimes a form of competition existing between different tendencies. Now the game is completely closed."

The researcher sees it as "a manifestation of strength and a proof of weakness" of the hard core of the regime, threatened by the growing divide with its population.

Very young citizens, mostly under 35, who have experienced neither the Islamic revolution nor the Iran-Iraq war.

“This youth is completely indifferent to the major rhetorical fundamentals of the regime,” underlines Jonathan Piron.

Faced with it, the country's leaders have blithely passed the age of 70, even 80, forming "an sclerotic gerontocracy".

The contrast between these two worlds was evident during the uprisings that followed the death of Mahsa Amini in 2022, with slogans such as “Woman, life, freedom”, and “Death to the dictator”.

After the death of the young woman arrested by the moral police, many young people defied power in the streets to demand justice and equality for women, but also the end of the Islamic Republic.

Also read Death of Mahsa Amini: “This mute crowd came to life and started screaming”

Remaining deaf, the authorities intensified the repression.

At least 500 protesters have been killed and thousands have been arrested.

At least eight protesters have been executed so far for their role in the rallies, following trials described as unfair by human rights organizations.

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