Why Have So Many Candidates Registered for Iran’s Upcoming 2016 Elections?

Registration for the upcoming Iranian parliamentary and Assembly of Experts elections in February 2016 saw a huge spike in the number of aspiring candidates compared to the last time around: 12123 people signed up to be considered for candidacy for parliamentary elections, or nearly 42 for each of the Iranian parliament’s 290 seats, more than twice the number that signed up for the 2012 parliamentary elections. Meanwhile, 801 people signed up to be considered for candidacy in the Assembly of Experts elections or nearly nine people competing for each of the assembly’s 88 seats, 62 percent more than the number that signed up for the 2008 assembly elections. As with previous elections, however, only a fraction of aspiring candidates will likely be considered qualified to be candidates in the actual elections. Given traditionally high attrition rates for aspiring national candidates, why did so many Iranians turned out this time around?

(Also see: Spotlight on Parliament: How to Become a Candidate and How the Guardian Council could shape Iran’s 2016 Parliamentary election)

One explanation could be an increase in confidence in Iran’s political system as an instrument for broader social, political, and economic change. Following the controversial 2009 Iranian presidential elections, during which the Green Movement took to the streets to challenge the election’s outcome, many Iranians lost faith in their political system and boycotted the 2012 parliamentary elections. With the election of President Hassan Rouhani in the 2013 presidential election and the subsequent successful negotiation of an agreement over the Iranian nuclear program and the lifting of international sanctions, many Iranians’ faith or hope in the system as a means for change may have been at least somewhat restored.

Another explanation could be that Iranian reformists and some centrists, who have been systematically excluded from Iranian elite politics since 2009, have used mass registration of relatively unknown candidates to get around restrictions on their political participation. The operating logic appears to be that even if most of these aspiring candidates are disqualified from running, a few will slip through the the Guardian Council’s net, allowing for the formation of reformist and centrist blocs in the upcoming parliament. Given parliament’s role in creating legislation and monitoring the executive branch, a more moderate parliament could give Rouhani a boost in implementing his agenda. This includes everything from economic reform to greater social and political freedoms to greater transparency in how “political crimes” are prosecuted.

A similar logic may well be at play in the Assembly of Experts elections. The assembly is an elected body responsible for selecting, monitoring, and removing the supreme leader, the highest political and religious authority in Iran. It has 88 members, who serve for eight years, all of whom are Islamic jurists. Centrist clergymen around former president and current Expediency Council head Ayatollah Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani may be seeking to build a strong bloc in the assembly with an eye to the future. Iran’s Supreme Leader, who is 76 years old, was treated for cancer last year and some believe that, given his uncertain health, the assembly chosen in the upcoming 2016 election may be the one to choose the next supreme leader. A strong centrist bloc in the assembly will mean that moderate forces would be much better positioned to choose the next supreme leader or supreme leadership council.

While parliamentary and assembly elections are usually more low key affairs than presidential elections in the Islamic Republic, Iranians have taken notice of how consequential these elections may very well be and are standing up to have their voices heard.