Majles Seats and the Challenge of Fair Distribution

2016/02/16
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Nabz-Nameh February 2016

Creating fair proportionality between the population of electoral districts and the number of seats allocated to them in the Majles (parliament) is a challenge that to date has not received the attention it merits in Iran. Indeed, analysts have been too preoccupied with other political debates to focus on this issue.

Coming up with equal proportionality in number of voters relative to number of elected representatives across all electoral districts is a difficult but necessary challenge, as inequality here results in an unjust division of power in the country. In some electoral districts where the population is very large while the number of seats allocated to them is relatively inadequate, residents of those districts have less of a say in the Majles. On the other hand, regions with lower population but an equal or higher number of seats enjoy greater influence on the decisionmaking processes of the country, since a smaller group of people ends up with more votes, and consequently, more power. Fair proportionality in the distribution of Majles seats and in the power of citizens’ votes requires defining appropriate indicators that account for variation in population, ethnicity, climate, and other determining factors, which itself calls for a precise understanding of the current state of electoral districts in Iran.

The Origins of Electoral Districting

Iran is currently divided into 31 ostans [provinces], each of which comprises a set of one or several shahrestans [counties], which are likewise divided into one or more bakhshes [generally translated as districts, though not to be confused with electoral districts]. There are currently 207 electoral districts, each of which covers one or more counties or bakhshes. But the history of elections in Iran, spanning over a century, has seen these divisions undergo extensive change and reform.

Iran’s First Electoral Divisions

Iran’s first electoral laws followed the ratification of the Constitution of 1906 and were drawn up and implemented by the Supreme Majles, whose members had been appointed by Mirza Hossein Khan Moshir od-Dowleh. These laws divided the country into 13 electoral districts, of which the 4 largest, besides Tehran, had 12 representatives each and the smaller ones 6. Tehran comprised an electoral district on its own, with 32 representatives.

List of Iran’s first electoral districts (besides Tehran)
District Number of representatives
Azarbaijan 12
Khorasan, Sistan, Torbat, Torshiz, Ghuchan, Bojnurd, Shahrud, and Bastam 12
Gilan and Talesh 6
Mazandaran, Tonekabon, Estarabad, Firuz Kuh, and Damavand 6
Khamseh, Ghazvin, Semnan, and Damghan 6
Kerman and Baluchestan 6
Fars and Persian Gulf ports 12
Arabestan1, Lorestan, and Borujerd 6
‌Kermanshahan and Gerus 6
Kordestan and Hamedan 6
Esfahan, Yazd, Kashan, Ghom, and Saveh 12
Iraq2, Malayer, Tuyserkan, Nahavand, Kamareh, Golpayegan, and Khansar 6

1. From the original text of the law; this refers to Khuzestan.
2. This refers to Persian Iraq.

Research by Mohammad Reza Vizhe and Hamid Ghahvechian, published in the academic journal Islamic Law and Jurisprudence, shows that the challenge of fair distribution in the Iranian electoral system has its beginning in those early electoral laws of the Constitutional period. For example, they quote from the then Friday prayer leader of Khoy County: “Given the population of Iran and 200 deputies, approximately every 100,000 people should have the right to elect one representative. According to this principle, the people of Tehran would have 3 representatives; if we take Tehran’s social class into account, they would have 6; and if we consider that it is the capital and so count for double, then they would have 12 representatives. So how is it that you have determined 60 representatives for Tehran and 12 for large states with populations of a few crores?” [Note: One crore is equal to 10 million.] However, it appears that the Khoy Friday prayer leader was overstating the number of representatives from Tehran, since at the time it had only 32 representatives.

Despite the important role that religious minorities, particularly Armenians, played in the victory of the Constitutional Revolution, the electoral laws of the Constitution of 1906 were silent on the involvement, or lack thereof, of minorities in elections. It seems that most Muslim clerics of the time frowned upon granting religious minorities the right to vote. One such contemporary cleric, Nazemoleslam Kermani, wrote: “There were negotiations with the Jews and the Armenians, who agreed that they would do without a representative of their own in the Majles. The Armenians and Jews accepted Mr. Tabatabaei and Mr. Behbahani, respectively, as substitute representatives who would defend their interests in the Majles, but the Zoroastrians would not yield and insisted that the Majles support their representative.” From the Second Majles on, religious minorities were able to elect their own representatives to parliament [officially known then as the National Consultative Assembly].

The Pahlavi Era

The districting laid out in the Constitution of 1906 remained largely unchanged until 1960, when the Nineteenth Majles passed a single-article bill that expanded the 12 electoral districts in Iran into 20 general districts. These general districts were themselves divided into a total of 162 electoral districts, 5 of which were allocated to religious minorities, while the number of representatives in the Majles likewise increased to 200. This legislation remains the basis for electoral districting in Iran. The table below displays a list of the general districts in Iran. (Source: Judiciary of Tehran Province)

Breakdown of electoral districts and number of representatives in 1960
General district Number of [electoral] districts Number of representatives
Azarbaijan 21 29
Khorasan 16 20
Fars and Persian Gulf ports 12 16
Kerman and Bandar Abbas 8 9
Arak 3 3
Esfahan and Bakhtiari 13 14
Borujerd, Khorramabad, Aligudarz, and Golpayegan 6 6
Tehran and surrounding counties 14 28
Persian Gulf islands 1 2
Khuzestan 12 14
Zanjan 4 4
Sistan and Baluchestan 3 3
Kashan 2 2
Kordestan 5 6
Kermanshahan 6 7
Gilan 9 10
Mazandaran and Gorgan 10 12
Hamedan and Malayer 7 7
Yazd 3 3
Minorities 5 5
Total 162 200

This law divided up districts on the basis of population, namely 100,000 people per representative. According to the deputy interior minister of the time, one of the goals behind increasing the number of electoral districts to 160 seems to have been the fairer distribution of political power throughout the country.

The Islamic Republic

From 1960 to 1987, the number of electoral districts gradually increased from 160 to 196. Article 64 of the 1979 Constitution of the Islamic Republic specifies 270 representatives in the Majles and that one additional representative should be added for each increase of 150,000 people in the population. After the Constitution was amended in 1989, it stipulated that 20 new seats should be added every 10 years, regardless of the level of population growth in the country during that period. In 1991, the Majles required the Interior Ministry to implement changes stemming from reforms to Iran’s administrative divisions in electoral districts as well. This was an attempt by the Majles to make the delimitations of the electoral districts correspond more closely with Iran’s national subdivisions. Nevertheless, in some parts of Iran, this correspondence remains incomplete. In 2000, the number of representatives increased from 270 to 290 and will remain so through the end of the Ninth Majles.

Present day

In 2014, the Majles Committee on Councils and Domestic Affairs approved a bill that lays out how the 20 new parliamentary seats that are added every 10 years, as mandated by the Constitution, are to be distributed. Like other bills, this one would bring about new changes to the makeup of electoral districts as well, but elections experts in Iran do not believe that it would be able to overcome the problem of unfair distribution of parliamentary seats. Ultimately, the Majles did not ratify this bill and has effectively shelved it.

The most recent electoral districting

In November 2014, the Majles Research Center published its expert opinion regarding the bill on the distribution of the 20 new seats among the electoral districts. The Research Center found two basic flaws with the bill, concluding that the distribution of the 20 new seats would be unfair and discriminatory. The first issue was that the bill does not specify on what basis the districts that would gain seats are determined. Second, the bill disregards the country’s general policies concerning elections as approved by the Expediency Discernment Council, namely the stipulation that electoral districts be determined “according to population and unavoidable circumstances in a way that maximizes fairness in elections and people’s familiarity with candidates.”

The Majles expert opinion seems to be based on the “Review of the Proportion of Populations of Electoral Districts Relative to the Number of Majles Representatives”, published by the Majles Research Center in April 2014. The Research Center describes criteria for how Majles seats could be distributed among the electoral districts and considers population as the sole criterion for distribution of seats in Iran. This means that the population of an electoral district is the only factor that determines how many seats that district is allocated.

The 2011 census, the most recent one conducted by the Statistical Center of Iran, estimates Iran’s population at 66,975,149. Given 290 seats in the Majles, there should be one representative for every 259,136 people. In Iran, there is no law regarding how much the population of an electoral district can deviate from a particular standard. In its study, the Majles Research Center considers 50,000 people as the limit of deviation and classifies electoral districts into three categories based on that figure. In this way, districts with more than 309,136 people per seat are entitled to an increase in representatives, districts with fewer than 209,136 people per seat should have fewer seats, and districts with a population within these limits are in an acceptable state. The table below shows the state of districts according to the Research Center’s classification.

Map of Iran's electoral districts according to the Majles Research Center’s classification - 2014


Map of Iran's electoral districts classified by ±50,000 people as the limit of deviation

This map shows Iran's electoral districts according to the Majles Research Center's classifications. Districts that have more than 50,000 people above the national average population per representative are shown in orange, those with more than 50,000 below the average are in blue, and the rest are in white.

Click on the map to enlarge it.

Along with the Majles report, the Journal of Human Geography Research, affiliated with the Faculty of Geography of the University of Tehran, also published the “Study about Distribution of Seats of Islamic Consultative Assembly (Majlis) in Iran”, which attempts to consider other criteria in addition to population, such as the geographic size of districts, their remoteness from or proximity to centers, and access to Majles seats by nomadic tribes. The study limits its review of the distribution of Majles seats to the provincial level. For example, it finds that even though Razavi Khorasan has two million more people than East Azarbaijan, the latter province has one more representative in the Majles.

International standards

International standards do exist for fair distribution of parliamentary seats, such as the Venice Commission’s Code of Good Practice in Electoral Matters, whose section on equal voting power addresses the population of electoral districts. Iran is not a signatory to the document, but given that since its ratification in 2003 this code has become the international standard for distributing parliamentary seats, it is used for reference here.

According to the Venice Commission's guidelines, equal voting power is a fundamental principle of any fair election, and the fair distribution of parliamentary seats across electoral districts is one path toward this equality. The Venice Commission's guidelines provide a standard for the fair distribution of parliamentary seats based on the population of electoral districts, in addition to various criteria for distributing seats fairly, among the most important of which is the population of an electoral district. This population could be defined as the number of people who reside within the district, the number of people who are registered to vote, or “the number of people actually voting”. Beyond that, factors such as geography, history, administrative boundaries, etc. should also be taken into account. The goal is for voters throughout the country to enjoy equal voting power, so the Venice Commission's guidelines specify that apart from rare cases such as the geographic concentration of a minority group or an isolated administrative entity, deviation from the population norm “should not be more than 10%, and should certainly not exceed 15%.”

Map of Iran's electoral districts on the basis of the Venice Commission's guidelines - 2016


Map of Iran's electoral districts on the basis of the Venice Commission's guidelines

The Venice Commission’s Code of Good Practice in Electoral Matters includes a section on equal voting power through proportionality in population across electoral districts. This map shows Iran's electoral districts in 2016 on the basis of the Venice Commission's recommendations.

Click on the map to enlarge it.

Comparing districts on the basis of the Venice Commission's guidelines

The map to the right shows how electoral districts in Iran are classified on the basis of the Venice Commission's guidelines. As can be seen, just a small part of the districts fall within the ±10 percent range of deviation from the national average population per Majles seat, which comes out to 233,238 people per representative, calculated according to the 2011 census. This means that only a few districts are in a suitable state. From this map it can be inferred that the more densely-populated parts of Iran, such as some of the big counties, are in the most need of more representatives in the Majles. These population centers have inordinately low access to decisionmaking in Iran. Perhaps one of the reasons for this state of affairs is the extensive migration to cities. Even though the big cities have become ever more densely populated, the numbers of their representatives in the Majles have not kept pace adequately. On the other hand, the blue areas on the map, depicting Iran’s desert regions, have a clear surplus of Majles representatives despite a relatively low population.

Also notable about this map is the poor state of districts in the southeast and northwest of the country. These regions are not densely populated, but they have in common a majority Sunni population. A shortage of Majles seats could mean that the Sunni residents of these districts end up with less of a say in the country’s affairs.

Comparing provinces on the basis of the Venice Commission's guidelines

The map below shows the level to which the ratio of each province’s population to number of representatives deviates from the national average of all provinces, according to population figures from the 2011 census. Provinces are ranked by four colors. The population standard for provinces, i.e. the average population-to-representative ratio for all provinces, comes out to 263,411 people per representative. The result is that just one-third of provincial districts are in a suitable state. This map is largely consistent with the map of electoral districts. As can be seen, there is a clear shortage of representatives in densely-populated provinces such as Tehran, Alborz, and Razavi Khorasan, as well as in the Sunni-populated regions of Sistan and Baluchestan and Hormozgan. So unless there were changes to how seats are distributed across the country, even the provincialization of elections would not overcome the problem of proportionality between population and number of representatives. The bill to provincialize elections stipulates that provinces would still be allocated the same number of representatives as they currently have, “in accordance with the Law Determining Majles Electoral Districts (ratified April 14, 1987) and all subsequent revisions to it.”

For a deeper analysis of the bill to provincialize elections, refer to the Nabz-Nameh dedicated to this topic: “The Provincialization of Elections and the Future of the Electoral Process in Iran”.

Map of Iran's provinces on the basis of the Venice Commission's recommendations - 2016


Map of Iran's provinces on the basis of the Venice Commission

This map classifies Iran's provinces on the basis of the Venice Commission's recommendations.

Click on the map to enlarge it.

Local approaches

In some electoral districts, the issue of fair distribution of seats can only be addressed by taking the districts’ population as the criterion for division. The bill passed by the Majles Committee on Councils follows this approach in some regions of the country, but in others where it does not, it would lead to increased disproportionality.

The state of electoral districts in the province of East Azarbaijan

This map shows the state of electoral districts in the province of East Azarbaijan

For example, the province of East Azarbaijan (map below) has 19 seats distributed across 11 districts. Three districts (Maragheh and Ajabshir; Tabriz, Azarshar, and Osku; Marand and Jolfa) have a shortage of representatives, one district (Ahar and Heris) is in good shape, and the rest of the districts (Bonab; Malekan; Hashtrud and Charuymagh; Mianeh; Sarab; Bostanabad; Shabestar; Varzaghan; Kaleybar and Hurand) have a surplus of representatives. [Note: Hurand is a bakhsh, but all other toponyms in this list refer to counties.] The county of Mianeh is an electoral district on its own with a population of 185,806 people and two representatives in the Majles. If one seat were transferred from Mianeh to Tabriz, then the district of Tabriz would have an appropriate ratio of residents to representatives, and there would be need to add to the total number of seats in the Majles. Likewise, merging Sarab with Bostanabad would produce one electoral district with a population of 226,919. With one representative, this district would deviate by just two percent from the acceptable mean. So by merging two districts, one Majles seat could be freed up for the province. In the same way, combining Maragheh and Ajabshir with Bonab would create a district with less than one percent deviation.

However, the bill passed by the Majles Committee on Councils does not see it this way. It adds one representative to the province’s total, which changes the status of Maragheh and Ajabshir from red to blue. This means that relative to the national average ratio of residents to representatives, Maragheh and Ajabshir’s deviation rises to the level of 15 to 50 percent; in other words, the district goes from being underrepresented to having a surplus of representatives. Another change is separating the bakhsh of Hurand from Kaleybar and adjoining it to the district of Ahar and Heris, which does not appear to improve proportionality for the population of either district. It is unclear to what extent legislators considered district populations when making these decisions; examining similar changes in other parts of the country corroborates this skepticism.

The map below shows the electoral districts of the province of Lorestan. Selseleh and Delfan Counties currently make up one electoral district, where the ratio of seats to population is fair, but the bill passed by the Majles Committee on Councils would split the two counties into separate electoral districts with one representative apiece. A university professor hailing from Selseleh County ostensibly recommended to provincial officials and the district’s representative that Lorestan’s one added representative be allocated to this electoral district to divide it into two districts, a suggestion accepted by the Majles Committee on Councils. Meanwhile a local website from Khorramabad writes that “Khorramabad is the center of the province and having 3 representatives would draw more attention from officials to this district.” Such arguments show that local political rivalries are a determining factor in electoral districting. It is interesting to note that as far as population goes, not only does Lorestan as a province not need any more representatives, it actually has one seat too many.

The state of electoral districts in the province of Lorestan

This map shows the state of electoral districts in the province of Lorestan.

Other criteria

Article 64 of the Iranian Constitution stipulates that: “There are to be two hundred seventy members of the Islamic Consultative Assembly which, keeping in view the human, political, geographic and other similar factors, may increase by not more than twenty for each ten-year period from the date of the national referendum of the year 1368 of the solar Islamic calendar. The Zoroastrians and Jews will each elect one representative; Assyrian and Chaldean Christians will jointly elect one representative; and Armenian Christians in the north and those in the south of the country will each elect one representative. The limits of the election constituencies and the number of representatives will be determined by law.” This shows that, in addition to population, legislators also had political and geographical factors in mind for electoral districting.

Substantial differences between the mega-district of Tehran and Iran’s more typical electoral districts may help shed light on the need for other criteria. As the capital, Tehran comprises the country’s biggest electoral district, with 30 seats in the Majles. Due to its political significance, Tehran has always been at the top of the decisionmaking and legislative pyramid. Tehran representatives have traditionally concerned themselves with broader national issues and political discussions, more so than with the local issues of their own constituents in their electoral districts. On the other hand, representatives of smaller districts are more familiar with and committed to pursuing the day-to-day problems of their electoral districts. It is arguably rare for citizens of Tehran to be able to interact directly with their representatives in the Majles. This difference in representative-constituent relations between Tehran and smaller districts is perhaps why the political and geographical factors mentioned in the Constitution are considered in the distribution of Majles seats among electoral districts. Although a more precise and comprehensive review is needed, any decisions made in this area should entail equal voting power for citizens throughout the country.

Iran’s officially recognized religious minorities number roughly 300,000 people and have 5 representatives in the Majles. As far as the population criterion, these religious minorities have been granted a legal exception in their favor. According to the elections law, only minorities in Tehran and Esfahan form electoral districts, while minorities living in cities such as Shiraz and Tabriz (the other centers of concentration for officially recognized minorities in Iran), as well as in smaller counties, cast their ballots at supplemental polling stations. Other religious minorities in Iran, including Baha’is and Dervishes, are not officially recognized and cannot have dedicated representation in the Majles.

It may be impossible to distribute Majles seats fairly without accounting for administrative, political, and geographical factors, an indication that such factors have always been a barrier to the fair distribution of seats on the basis of population. As for why the distribution of Majles seats among electoral districts deviates significantly from an equitable norm, there are conceivably a number of serious obstacles to fair electoral districting in Iran, including the dearth of academic research, the predominance of conservative approaches, geographic determinism, proximity to or distance from district centers, voters’ unawareness of their rights and lack of access to their Majles representatives, the politicization of elections, opaqueness in existing laws and standards concerning elections, and a lack of access for nomadic tribes.

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