By Syed Zafar Mehdi
TEHRAN (AA) – Campaigning for Friday's parliamentary election in Iran is in full swing, with reformists and conservatives pulling out all the stops to woo voters.
Thousands of candidates from both camps are competing for 290 seats in the polls, in which more than 57 million Iranians are eligible to vote and 3 million are first-time voters.
The run-up to the polls has been marred with controversy after many candidates, mainly reformists and moderates, were disqualified by the Guardian Council, a powerful 12-member election supervisory body.
Reformists, who presently hold the majority in parliament with 41 percent of seats, fear that the disqualifications of their candidates will render the electoral exercise a lop-sided contest in favor of conservatives, who hold 29 percent of seats in parliament.
The vote also comes amid soaring tensions between Iran and the U.S. in the wake of the killing of top military commander Qasem Soleimani in a U.S. drone airstrike last month, which almost led the two adversaries to the brink of a full-fledged war.
Although Soleimani's killing briefly united Iranian politicians across the political spectrum, the fault lines between the two main camps with different ideological leanings have become more accentuated as the date of election inches closer.
The parliamentary vote coincides with the mid-term election of the Assembly of Experts, a powerful body that elects the Supreme Leader, which will also be held on Feb. 21.
- Struggle for survival
Despite winning a majority of seats in parliament in the 2016 election, reformists are facing a daunting task to retain their majority in the upcoming polls.
While the disqualification of some of their candidates has pushed the reformist camp on the back foot, the government of President Hassan Rouhani is also facing severe criticism over growing economic problems and tensions in the region.
Analysts believe that Soleimani's death and growing calls for "revenge" from the U.S. have benefitted the conservatives.
"Space has clearly shrunk for the moderates with anti-West and anti-U.S. chorus growing louder after the assassination of Gen. Soleimani, as many see the moderates responsible for trusting the U.S. and its allies and getting nothing in return," Mohammad Jahangiri, a strategic affairs analyst, told Anadolu Agency.
He called it a "struggle for survival" for moderates and reformists, who have been greatly divided into mini camps within the larger camp over the issue of participation in the polls.
The Feb. 21 vote is seen as a litmus test of the popularity of reformists and moderates led by Rouhani, who have dominated the political scene in Iran since 2013.
The group, according to observers, has struggled to deliver on its 2013 campaign promises to bring Iranians out of the vortex of U.S. sanctions and improve their lives.
The much-publicized nuclear deal signed between Iran and world powers in 2015 was initially seen as a masterstroke of the Rouhani government, designed to get rid of crippling economic sanctions, but it ended up as another disastrous experiment after the U.S. unilateral withdrawal and re-imposition of sanctions.
A senior government official said the U.S. exit from the deal was unexpected and the Rouhani administration was unprepared to deal with its fallout.
"During Rouhani's second term, there have been ups and downs, gambles and experiments to iron out differences with the West, including the U.S., but it just hasn't worked," the official said on condition of anonymity.
He blamed it on U.S. President Donald Trump's "hard-nosed regional policy" and "lobbying powers of the Zionist power brokers in Washington", but added that the Rouhani government "could have treaded more cautiously."
- Nationalistic fever
Analysts believe the struggling economy, rising inflation, and lack of jobs for young people are issues that would play on the minds of voters in the polls, including the traditional vote bank of reformists and moderates.
Voters could also be swayed by patriotism and nationalistic fervor in the wake of Soleimani's killing, especially those who see the need of a strong government to respond to any threat from the U.S.
"Although the tempers have cooled, the threat of war has not ended yet, so Iranian voters would ideally want a government at this juncture that can protect their country from the external threat," said Reza Abedi, a social and political activist.
He added that tensions with the US could work to the advantage of conservatives as they seek to reclaim the lost space from reformists, despite their internal fights.