Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani has jabbed at hardliners ahead of Parliamentary elections on February 21.

Rouhani, who has faced sustained criticism from hardliners since he took office in August 2013, spoke out on Tuesday about the Guardian Council’s disqualification of almost 2/3 of the 14,500 candidates.

He said the vetting risked MPs being selected “elsewhere”, rather than at the ballot box: “They should at least let there be competition and high turnout.”

The Guardian Council, whose 12 members are named by the Supreme Leader and the judiciary, is seen as a conservative body that has long restricted centrist and reformist candidates from standing for the Majlis or the Presidency. In 2013, it blocked former President Hashemi Rafsanjani, only for Rafsanjani’s protégé Rouhani — approved by the Council as a consolation — to win a surprise victory in the Presidential ballot.

The Council has approved only 5,000 candidates for the February vote. Among those disqualified are 92 current MPs.

Rouhani pressed his argument in remarks to provincial governors:

The greatest danger for democracy and national sovereignty is the day when elections become a formality. May God never bring this day….

Let us reassure the people and tell them our system is not a single-party system. Public trust is more important than elections.

Tension between the President and others within the regime has been elevated by the Iranian military’s cover-up of the January 8 downing of a Ukraine International Airlines flight, killing 176 passengers and crew.

The military, with the knowledge of the Supreme Leader, lied about the shootdown and did not inform the Government of the actual circumstances for 48 hours.

On January 15, Rouhani challenged, “I urge the Armed Forces and the General Staff to explain to people what sessions and meetings were held since the moment that the incident happened to let people know that they did not want to conceal anything from them.”

See also Iran Daily, Jan 27: Did Supreme Leader Cover Up Downing of Ukraine Passenger Jet?

Iran Daily, Jan 16: Rouhani v. Military Over Downing of Ukraine Passenger Jet

Rouhani told the governors that he had “written letters to relevant authorities…to resolve the issue of competition”.

But he called for all Iranians to turn out, even if “there are shortcomings in elections”: “Even if you have criticism over issues and problems, please cast your vote.”

The President framed the issue as a response to the US, amid sanctions and “maximum pressure”:

This is a matter of national interests. We should all stand up and not allow Trump to succeed in creating gaps between the establishment and people….

We have to be careful, they are terrorizing people’s trust in the system.