Explained: Why Iran’s coming vote may strengthen the hardliners’ hold on the country

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The elections are not likely to be competitive or to provide the actual measure of popular support for the candidates. (AP Photo)

On Friday (February 21), the people of Iran will vote in the eleventh parliamentary elections since the founding of the Islamic Republic in 1979.

The elections come at a crucial time for the country, as it seeks to resist and negotiate intense pressure and sanctions from the administration of United States President Donald Trump over its nuclear programme, and as Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei attempts to tighten control over the country that has been wracked by street protests over rising prices in recent weeks.

In Iran, a tightly controlled election

The elections are not likely to be competitive or to provide the actual measure of popular support for the candidates. This is because the Guardian Council, a body comprising six clerics appointed by Ayatollah Khamenei and six jurists appointed indirectly by the Supreme Leader, has barred several dozen reformist candidates from running.

Candidates in Iran's elections are screened by committees of the government, and thereafter by the Guardian Council. The Council is a hardline watchdog body that vets all candidates for their commitment to Islam, the system of religious law, and the Islamic Republic itself.

While candidates considered unfit on the above grounds have traditionally been blocked from contesting, the Guardian Council has been especially strict this year, reflecting the need for the establishment to keep a stranglehold on the election process. The decisions of the Council have resulted in the reformist faction among Iran's ruling elite being entirely excluded from the race.

Some 7,150 candidates have been finally cleared to run, less than half of the over 16,000 who had applied. Among those cast aside are at least 80 sitting lawmakers, various western news outlets have reported.

The Moderate, pro-reform faction, which wants greater political and social freedoms for Iranians, has no candidates for as many as 230 of the 290 seats in Parliament.

Besides the Moderates and pragmatists, the Iranian political universe has the Conservatives who, like the hardliners, back the ruling theocracy -- however, unlike the hardliners, the Conservatives are in favour of greater engagement with the world.

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Parties and factions

According to Iran's Ministry of the Interior, there are 82 national and 34 provincial political parties in the country. However, these parties do not function independently along well defined political lines or platforms -- rather, they make up the constituent elements of a few broad factions in the country's politics.

Ahead of these elections, two main hardline groups and one conservative coalition have emerged. Some candidates have the backing of more than one group. According to an explainer by Reuters, these groups or factions are as follows:

Coalition of Islamic Revolution Forces: This is the biggest of the hardline groups, and includes former members of the elite Revolutionary Guard and their affiliated Basij militia, apart from other close loyalists of Ayatollah Khamenei. This group is expected to dominate the Assembly after the elections.

Principalists: These candidates are Conservatives, but they say they are "principle-oriented" -- loyal to the ideals of the Islamic Republic and the Supreme Leader, but not hostile towards the West in the manner of the hardliners.

Front of Islamic Revolution Stability: This group is at the far end of the fundamentalist spectrum, and owes allegiance to Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi, an extremely radical cleric who is often identified as the most conservative and the most powerful religious leader in the city of Qom, Iran's leading centre of religious learning.

Executives of the Construction of Iran: This faction comprises technocrats who support the ideals of the Islamic Republic, but who are desirous of seeing social and political change in the country. Most of their leading candidates were, however, excluded by the screening process.

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Iran elections: Voting and results

Voting begins at 0430 GMT (10 am in India) and ends at 1430 GMT (8 pm in India). But it can be extended until 2030 GMT, which will be midnight in Iran.

Some 58 million people are eligible to vote. They must be over 18 years of age. Iran's population is estimated to be about 83 million.

Ballots will be counted manually, and the final results may take three days to be announced.