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Iran's Lowest Election Turnout Since Islamic Revolution A Blow To Khamenei, Clerical Establishment


A woman holds a portrait of former and current supreme leaders, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, as she queues up to vote on February 21 at the Shah Abdul Azim shrine on the southern outskirts of Tehran.

Iranians have largely ignored a massive get-out-the vote effort by the government to record the lowest turnout for a nationwide election since the establishment of the Islamic republic in 1979.

The Interior Ministry says a record low of 42.57 percent of registered voters took part in Iran's February 21 parliamentary elections, which is about 20 percent lower than the 2016 elections.

Analysts say the poor turnout is a major blow to the clerical establishment. Low voter participation was especially problematic in major cities -- including the capital Tehran -- where turnout was 20 to 30 percent according to estimates and unofficial reports.

It comes amid calls by Iranian leaders and state media for voters to show up en masse, with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei portraying voting as a "religious duty" and urging even those who don't like him to vote.

But the voters' rejection of the government's various exhortations for people to take part comes as the country's cleric-led leadership faces some of its most challenging times in decades amid a U.S. campaign of "maximum pressure" and popular discontent and mistrust of state officials.

"The low turnout is a reflection of a general public mood toward a ruling system largely seen as increasingly illegitimate, incompetent, and corrupt -- and anathema to people's interests," Ali Fathollah-Nejad, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center think tank, told RFE/RL via e-mail.

Turnout And Legitimacy

Iranian leaders often use relatively high turnout rates in the country's elections -- where candidates are preapproved by a hard-line watchdog loyal to Khamenei -- to claim legitimacy and popular support.

"[The turnout] is important for authorities' show of support," Washington-based political analyst Ali Afshari told RFE/RL's Radio Farda.

"They don't admit that the elections are unfree and unfair. They claim that despite the disqualification process the elections are highly competitive, [and] they need it for a show of legitimacy," Afshari, a former student leader, added.

In the days leading up to the vote, the Guardians Council, which vets all election candidates, disqualified hundreds of reformists and moderates. Fathollah-Nejad said the purge, which turned the February 21 elections into the country's least representative vote, was a miscalculation on the part of the hard-liners.

"[The low turnout] also signals a huge miscalculation on the part of the ultraconservatives and their sense of hubris -- to a large extent due to the moderate camp's weakness and failures -- to put an end to a rather well-functioning safety net meant to channel public discontent and a mechanism for regime resilience," he said. "[That is], namely, offering the choice, as many Iranians refer to it, between a lesser and a larger evil (i.e. the moderates or reformists against the hard-liners), turning these elections into the most uncompetitive ones."

The turnout in the 2016 parliamentary elections was officially about 61 percent. Before that, the lowest turnout was in 2004 when 51 percent of voters cast their ballots in elections that led to a victory by conservatives.

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Ahead of these elections, many observers had suggested that the mass disqualification of reformists and moderate candidates, frustration over a worsening economy, anger over a deadly November crackdown on antiestablishment protests, as well as the clumsy handling of the January downing of a Ukrainian passenger jet was likely to result in public apathy and a very low turnout.

Those reasons along with a very sudden and extensive outbreak of the coronavirus across the country -- which has thus far killed eight people and possibly infected hundreds -- was also seen as a major factor that could keep voters at home.

On election day, citizen journalists sent videos to Radio Farda that appeared to show empty polling stations in several cities.

Abdollah Momeni, a well-respected political activist who was jailed in Iran for several years over his criticism of the government, said that the low turnout demonstrated the public's "rejection of a call by the establishment to take part in the show election."

Momeni and others had said publicly that they would not vote on February 21.

Threat Of Coronavirus

Abdollah Ganji, the editor in chief of the hard-line Javan daily, which is affiliated with the powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), posted a poll on Twitter asking his followers about the likely reasons for the low rate of people's participation in the parliamentary vote.

Most of the some 13,000 answers in the poll as of late February 23 blamed the low turnout on the pressure of the poor economic situation/living conditions in Iran (43.7 percent). The second reason for low voter participation given by those polled was the "[negative] events of the past year" (40.3 percent). Just 5.5 percent thought the outbreak of the coronavirus was the main reason, while 10.5 percent said it was due to people's unhappiness with the mass disqualification of candidates.

Speaking on February 23, Ayatollah Khamenei accused Iran's enemies of having tried to dissuade people from voting by exaggerating the threat of the coronavirus, the quick spread of which has caused many neighboring countries to close their borders with the Islamic republic and ban air travel to and from Iran.

As of February 23, more people have died from the coronavirus in Iran than any other country in the world except China, where the outbreak originated.

Yet Khamenei said the same day on his website that "this negative propaganda about the virus began a few months ago and it increased as the elections were approaching."

But he still suggested that people had made a good showing at the elections.

"People went to the polls, you saw it on television, and when you went out to vote you saw it," he said, adding that "in the past 41 years we've had 37 or 38 elections. Where in the world are there such great efforts for democracy?"

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Hard-liners were expected to dominate the next parliament, after most of the moderates and reformists were among the some 9,000 would-be candidates who were rejected by the Guardians Council from being allowed to participate.

Analysts say the anticipated conservative dominance of the next parliament could signal a victory for a hard-line candidate in Iran's 2021 presidential vote and cement the clerical establishment's hold on power in the country.

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