Iranian election sees a low turnout despite government push

1 March 2024, 20:44

Iran Election
Iran Election. Picture: PA

The state-owned polling centre IPSA predicted a national turnout of 38.5%.

Iran held its first parliamentary election since 2022 on Friday, drawing a low turnout amid calls for a boycott.

In 2022, mass protests broke out over mandatory hijab laws following the death of Mahsa Amini.

It wasn’t immediately clear if voter apathy or an active desire to send a message to Iran’s theocracy depressed the number of voters coming to polling stations across the Islamic Republic.

Iran Election
People queue to vote during the elections at a polling station in Tehran (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)

While state-controlled television broadcast images of lines of voters, others across the capital of Tehran saw largely empty polling stations.

Officials including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei sought to link turnout directly to taking a stand against Iran’s enemies. Others, including imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize laureate Narges Mohammadi, urged a boycott of a vote they derided as a “sham”.

Authorities broadly barred politicians calling for any change within the country’s government, known broadly as reformists, from running in the election.

Of about 15,000 candidates vying for seats in the 290-member parliament, formally known as the Islamic Consultative Assembly, only 116 are considered to be relatively moderate or pro-reform candidates.

Meanwhile, Iran’s economy continues to stagnate under Western sanctions over Tehran’s rapidly advancing nuclear program and the country’s arming of militia proxies in the Middle East and Russia in its war on Ukraine.

Some of the voters acknowledged the challenges facing the Islamic Republic.

Iran Election
Iran held the country’s first election since the mass 2022 protests over mandatory hijab laws after the death in police custody of Mahsa Amini, with questions looming over just how many people will turn out at the polls (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)

“There are many problems; too many problems,” said one voter. “We are sad, we are sorrowful and we voice our criticism as much as we can. God willing, those responsible will start thinking about us, and probably many of them do care.”

Mr Khamenei, 84, cast one of the first votes in an election that also will pick new members of the country’s Assembly of Experts.

The panel of clerics, who serve an eight-year term, is mandated to select a new supreme leader if Mr Khamenei steps down or dies, underscoring its increased importance, given Mr Khamenei’s age.

Mr Khamenei voted before a crowd of journalists in Tehran, his left hand slightly shaking as he took his ballot from his right, paralyzed since a 1981 bombing.

State television showed a woman nearby weeping as she filmed Mr Khamenei with her mobile phone.

He urged people to vote in his brief remarks.

“Pay attention to this, make friends happy and disappoint the evil-wishers,” he said.

Iran Election
Turnout in the elections in Tehran was estimated at around 23.5% (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)

Mr Khamenei’s protege, hard-line President Ebrahim Raisi, repeated that call and urged the public to make it “a glorious day for the Iranian nation”.

But turnout appeared depressed in Tehran, where the state-owned polling centre ISPA had estimated a turnout of 23.5%.

ISPA had not put out election data prior to the vote until Thursday, something highly unusual as their figures typically get released much earlier.

ISPA’s poll, based on a survey of 5,121 voting-age people, predicted a turnout of 38.5% nationally.

It said the margin of error in the poll was 2%.

That could put turnout on track to be its lowest ever. The lowest previous came in the last parliamentary election in 2019, which saw a 42% turnout.

Iran Election
Results are expected on Saturday after polling hours were extended by four hours (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)

The boycott calls have put the government under renewed pressure, since its 1979 Islamic Revolution, Iran’s theocracy has based its legitimacy in part on turnout in elections.

In one polling place in Tehran, a young woman without a hijab and her mother, wearing one, entered. There was no comment from officials or police on hand.

“I accompanied my mother who wanted to vote just to remind authorities about last year’s crackdown,” said the daughter.

Her mother voted for a relative moderate running in their district, while she declined to cast a ballot, she said.

Meanwhile, a heavy security presence could be seen across the capital, with ordinary and anti-riot police officers visible in main squares and junctions.

Iran Election
A cleric receives his ballot paper during the parliamentary and Assembly of Experts elections at a polling station in Tehran (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)

Some 200,000 security forces have been deployed across the country as over 59,000 polling stations opened. Another 1 million people are reportedly running the election, home to some 85 million people.

Estimates put the voting-age population at 61 million.

Parliament terms run for four years, and five seats are reserved for Iran’s religious minorities.

Under the law, the parliament has oversight over the executive branch, votes on treaties and handles other issues.

In practice, absolute power in Iran rests with its supreme leader.

Hard-liners have controlled the parliament for the past two decades, with chants of “Death to America” often heard from the floor.

Iran Election
Hundreds of thousands of security forces have been deployed across the country as polling stations opened (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)

Under parliament speaker Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf, a former Revolutionary Guard general who supported a violent crackdown on Iranian university students in 1999, the legislature pushed forward a bill in 2020 that greatly curtailed Tehran’s co-operation with the United Nations nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency.

That followed then-US President Donald Trump’s unilateral withdrawal of America from Iran’s nuclear deal with world powers in 2018, an act that sparked years of tensions in the Middle East and saw Iran enrich enough uranium at record-breaking purity to have enough fuel for “several” nuclear weapons if it chose.

More recently, the parliament has focused on issues surrounding Iran’s mandatory head covering, or hijab, for women after the 2022 death of 22-year-old Miss Amini in police custody, which sparked nationwide protests.

The protests quickly escalated into calls to overthrow Iran’s clerical rulers. A subsequent security crackdown killed more than 500 people, with more than 22,000 detained.

Authorities extended the voting time by six hours, closing polling places at midnight local time (8.30pm GMT).

Initial election results are expected as early as Saturday.

By Press Association

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