The Provincialization of Elections and the Future of the Electoral Process in Iran

2015/11/24

Nabz-Nameh November 2015

Introduction

In April 2015, the Iranian Majles passed a bill that would require the government to carry out parliamentary elections at the provincial level. While electoral districts in Iran are currently drawn up along county lines, this bill would expand the districts to correspond to provinces. In the present system, each parliamentarian represents a municipal district delineated by the law on administrative divisions in Iran. For instance, in the province of Khuzestan, the residents of the city of Ahvaz can vote only for candidates from their city, and so submit their ballots for the Ahvaz electoral district. The residents of Andimeshk, a different city in Khuzestan, must likewise vote for candidates within their own city’s electoral district. Should this bill be confirmed [by the Guardian Council], citizens of each province could vote for any candidate at the provincial level. Presently, parliamentarians from Ahvaz and Andimeshk are considered representatives of their respective cities and generally concern themselves with their cities’ issues and problems. If this bill becomes law, these parliamentarians would become representatives of the province of Khuzestan. Nevertheless, a candidate would still need to gain at least 15 percent of the votes from his or her county of residence in order to win.

The Guardian Council and the Government

According to the Iranian Constitution, every bill must be confirmed by the Guardian Council before it becomes law. The Guardian Council rejected this bill as unconstitutional [Fa], and it seems impossible for the bill to become law ahead of the Majles elections in late February 2016. According to the Guardian Council, this bill would “discriminate against officially-recognized religious and political groups” and would lead to the outbreak and growth of regional, ethnic, tribal, and religious disputes. This bill also faces opposition from the administration, including the president himself and his legal deputy, although in Iran the presidential administration does not play a role in the ratification, confirmation, or rejection of a bill. The Interior Ministry likewise believes that the implementation of this bill would diminish the direct connection between people and their elected officials and, in practice, undermine the concept of representativeness. It also holds that the bill would cut or at least reduce ties between segments of the population and the government, namely the Majles and the legislative branch.

Ongoing Public Debate

This bill also has its opponents and proponents in the Majles and among the general public. Opponents of the bill argue that it is at odds with the spirit of democracy. They maintain that, according to the existing law, a chosen candidate is the representative of a defined area of the country, meaning that he or she is well-known among the people of that electoral district and is likewise familiar with their current problems. But if elections were to be organized at the provincial level, elected candidates would no longer be attached to a distinct constituency, and as a result, the motivation to participate would drop. These opponents of the bill also believe that according to the Iranian Constitution, parliamentarians are responsible for overseeing issues affecting the country more broadly, and in the current system, a representative of a city is therefore considered a representative of his or her province as well.

9th Majles Connections

Majles connections

This dynamic infographic shows the connections between Majles representatives and the principal groups within the legislature.

Supporters of the bill, however, argue that it would increase the legislative power of the Majles. They reason that if elections were to be provincialized, the provincial representatives would be elected via a party-list election process, which would allow them to make decisions in a more coordinated and cohesive manner, removed from local rivalries. In other words, proponents of the bill believe that it would change the existing practice and make the electoral and parliamentary system in Iran more transparent and dynamic. It is worth mentioning that a parliamentarian’s support for or opposition to the bill does not hinge on his or her political orientation.

Experts' Views

Experts view this bill from yet another perspective. They believe that prior to pursuing any plan to reform the Majles electoral law, the proportion of seats in the Majles should first be adjusted according to the distribution of population among each district compared to the overall population. According to these critics, the current allocation is unjust. For instance, the city of Karaj, capital of the province of Alborz, has 3 representatives for its population of around 2 million; meanwhile Rasht County, with a population of 900 thousand, has the same number of representatives. Such imbalances are apparent in other areas as well (for reference, see census statistics from the Iranian year 1390). International standards for determining electoral constituencies and apportioning seats call for “equal voting power,” so that the vote of one voter is equal in weight/value to the vote of another. This principle can also apply for constituency delimitation, in which case it requires that the ratio of voters to representatives be roughly equal among the various constituencies.

In future elections there will be an increase in the number of parliamentarians from 290 to 310, a change accounted for by population growth in cities and taken in accordance with Principle 64 of the Iranian Constitution. Principle 64 prescribes that while “keeping in view the human, political, geographic and other similar factors, [the number of parliamentarians] may increase by not more than twenty for each ten-year period… The limits of the election constituencies and the number of representatives will be determined by law.”

The first Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran specified that in the case of population growth, each electoral district would gain one new representative for every 150 thousand additional people. When the Constitution was amended in 1989, the population criterion was not defined precisely, but in practice, the same criterion as before is generally used to modify the scope of electoral districts.

In his book “Elections in Iran” [in Persian], Ali Ahmadi writes that “following the Islamic Revolution, the Constitution set the number of parliamentarians at 270, corresponding to one representative for every 150 thousand people.”

Principle Plurality Proportional Representation(PR)
First Past the Post (FPTP) Open List Closed List
Representation/proportionality - + ++
Accountability - link between people and representative ++ + -
Women's participation -- - +
Voter experience (easy to understand) and administration of elections + - +
Clear mandate/less fragmented governance + - -
Coherent opposition + - -
Conflict mitigation, exclusion of extremist parties + and - + and - + and -
Ethnic minority inclusion/participation + and - - +

According to this writer, "the current distribution of seats in the Majles shows that from a total of 207 electoral districts, 166 districts elect their representatives via single-mandate voting, and 36 elect between 2 and 30 seats via non-party block voting. Five seats pertaining to religious minorities are likewise elected via single-mandate voting. The current system of electoral districts in Iran is subject to broad criticism, particularly in relation to parliamentary elections. Due to its shortcomings and flaws, the existing system has few defenders, but there are differences of opinion among the proposed alternatives."

Overall, proponents of the bill expect that its implementation would open up new space for competition among parties in Iranian elections. Parliamentary seats would be distributed across the provinces according to the current number of representatives for each province, and in the future they would be determined by the Law Determining Majles Electoral Districts (1366) and all subsequent revisions to it. Through this process, existing parties would have an easier time producing separate provincial lists. At the end of the elections, analysts would also be able to effectively review the distribution of citizens’ votes across political parties and factions. The performance of elected representatives in the next round, based on their party and group views, would be all the more so transparent and predictable. Given Iran’s current political structure, in which there are no active political parties in the Majles and political alliances are temporary and fragile, this bill could better illuminate parliamentarians’ party attachments, and ultimately help make them more accountable. For example, a certain Party X that has no engagement in smaller counties would be able to produce a list for each province instead of having to present a candidate for each county. After the elections, it would also be clear how many representatives from Party X were elected to the Majles. Another advantage of this bill is reforming the rationing of seats in the Majles at the national level. A provincialized voting system would make it simpler to divide Majles seats according to the demographics of each province. By reforming the Law Determining Majles Electoral Districts, each province would be apportioned seats proportionally according to population, as is common among federal states.

Committee Membership by Province

Committee Membership by Province

This infographic provides an overview of the role and presence of Iran's provinces in the Majles and its committees.

Minorities and Women's Participation

This bill also has significant disadvantages, one of the most important being its disregard for minority rights. Under the provincialization of elections outlined in the bill, ethnic and religious minorities who in the current system send representatives to the Majles from their cities or regions would not be able to have a representative. Take into consideration the province of Ardabil, where Ardabil County (the center of the eponymous province) has a population of about 560 thousand people, which is approximately 92 thousand more than Khalkhal County. Naturally, Ardabil County would cast more votes for a candidate who is from the county. Therefore, cities that earlier had a separate quota for themselves would be deprived of a representative. The problem is exacerbated when local and tribal disputes break out in those areas, and this applies for ethnic and religious minorities (including Sunnis) as well. While this bill exempts religious minorities, in some provinces Sunni voters are outnumbered by Shiites, even though the Sunnis comprise the majority in their own cities. For instance, it is possible that Sunnis in the provinces of Gilan and Golestan would be deprived of representatives. Talesh County in Gilan has a population of nearly 200 thousand people, more than half of whom are Sunni. Nevertheless, Sunnis comprise just 10 percent of the total population of Gilan. Currently there is no Sunni representative in the Majles from this region, but if the elections were provincialized, practically no Sunni representative could ever be elected from there. (Refer to census statistics from the Iranian year 1390; unfortunately, no official statistics were found regarding the Sunni population of Iran.)

Democracy is not merely securing the rights of the majority. Rather, the electoral mechanism must be arranged in a way that takes into consideration the rights of political, religious, sexual, and other minorities. Accordingly, in some democratic countries like Norway and even in Iran’s neighbors Afghanistan and Iraq, special quotas are in place for women (as an example) that ensure their participation in public life even in a plurality electoral system. Such measures have led to increases in women’s participation in these countries’ parliaments. Statistics also show that between the years 2002 and 2012, the rate of women’s participation in legislation rose dramatically—from 3 percent to 25 percent—in countries like Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Jordan, Iraq, Turkey, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. Meanwhile, the same rate dropped from 4 percent to 2 percent in countries such as Iran and Egypt.

Women in Parliament

Women/MENA

This infographic compares the percentages of female parliamentarians in the Iranian Majles with national parliaments across the MENA region, Afghanistan, and Pakistan for the period 2000 to 2013. Within this period, 4 parliamentary elections have taken place in Iran; however, as can be seen in the infographic, while women's participation in national parliaments has increased in many of the region's countries, the level has not changed in Iran.

Some believe that this bill would lead to a decrease in women’s participation in elections. Indeed, due to the absence of a quota for women in the electoral law and the prevailing culture of patriarchy in Iran, there are concerns that the implementation of this law would undermine women’s chances of being elected. On the other side, there are also observers who consider these concerns groundless. They believe that not only would this law not restrict women’s participation in elections, switching to a party-list election process in provinces would actually boost women’s odds of winning. They hold that if women were to be included in the electoral lists of parties or groups, they would have a better chance of winning because they would no longer have to compete on their own in smaller electoral districts. Statistics on women’s participation in the legislative process in nine sessions of the Majles corroborate the latter argument. These statistics show that in the past 40 years, only 9 out of 78 women representatives have made it to the Majles by way of small electoral districts. The others represented districts that were provincial centers, including Tehran.

Conclusion

It must be said as a result that there should not be much expectation that this law would be of significant help to the democratic process in Iran, given the existing political limitations in Iran, including the Assembly of Experts’ affirmative oversight over Majles elections and the deprivation of many political activists from having parties or organizations. Nevertheless, one of the bases of democracy is the existence of laws that are transparent and that facilitate the democratic process. The enactment into law of such a bill could therefore help bring about a process in which political parties participate more actively in elections. Achieving this goal will be possible as long as other inadequacies in the electoral system are addressed, such as by establishing:

  • An electoral system appropriate to the conditions of Iran, whether that is a proportional representation system, a plurality one, or a combination of the two;
  • A fair balance in population across the electoral districts; and
  • Safeguards for minority rights and women’s participation.

The Nabz-Iran Resource library is a growing database of useful materials, including: UN treaties, declarations and conventions Iran has signed; legal documents, including the Iranian constitution and relevant Iranian laws; reports from non-governmental organizations (CSOs); fact sheets on the status of Iran's international obligations; and other materials related to the human rights situation in Iran.

Nabz-Iran, or "Pulse of Iran", is a secure platform for amplifying Iranian voices by collecting, mapping, sharing and prompting discussion on information related to various rights in Iran. We also provide resources and training materials to help Iranians advocate for greater accountability and related reforms. Information on Nabz-Iran comes from individual contributors and partner groups, and is gathered through on-the-ground witnesses, personal and professional networks and Iranian media sources. Resources on the platform include online courses for building monitoring and advocacy skills, maps and other infographics presenting data, analysis of legislation and international agreements to which Iran is a signatory, manuals and guides to support activists, multimedia components to spark dialogue and conversations, and more. Nabz-Iran does not advocate directly for specific policies and partners with a wide range of Iranian activists and international organizations to promote experience sharing, skills development and dialogue. We do not accept any funding that is tied to a particular political party or faction, requires support for a particular governmental policy, or otherwise compromises Nabz-Iran's independence.

If you would like to contribute to Nabz-Iran, please send an email to [email protected]. To subscribe to Nabz-Iran and receive periodic updates on rights issues in the Islamic Republic and other resources, please visit the Subscribe page.