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Source: NY Times

Mar 8, 2024

In Parliamentary Vote, Iranians Vented Their Rage With the Ruling Elite

Whether handing in blank ballots or voting for fringe candidates, analysts say, citizens registered their frustration with the status quo

By Farnaz Fassihi

Iranians have delivered a stinging rebuke to Iran’s ruling conservatives, an analysis of parliamentary election results shows, with millions of Iranians having boycotted the vote and a far-right faction making striking gains.

Many well-known conservative lawmakers, including the current speaker of Parliament, Gen. Mohammad Baqer Ghalibaf, a former Revolutionary Guard Corps commander, saw their vote counts drop steeply in the voting last week, and in many instances were defeated in their bids for re-election.

In numerous cities, including the capital of Tehran, so many blank ballots were cast that some politicians joked that several seats in Parliament should be left empty to account for the lack of votes.

Perhaps even more striking was the emergence of many ultraconservative candidates. In Tehran, those included a young state television personality, Amir Hossein Sabeti, who had no political experience and denied the coronavirus pandemic was real; a cleric, Mahmoud Nabavian, who opposed Iran’s nuclear deal with world powers and said the country needs nuclear weapons to confront Israel; and another cleric, Hamid Rasai, who said that protesters from the extensive women-led uprising in 2022, as well as one of Iran’s most famous actresses, should be executed.

Iran is a theocracy with a parallel system of governance in which elected bodies are supervised by appointed councils. Key state policies on nuclear, military and foreign affairs are decided by the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and the Supreme National Security Council, while the Revolutionary Guards have extensive influence over the economy and politics.

Parliament’s influence is limited and is centered primarily on social and economic issues. But parliamentary elections remain important as indicators of public sentiment, which in this case has soured on the ruling clerical and military elite and the system as a whole, analysts say.

“In the bigger picture, we are witnessing a crisis of representation,” Abolfazl Hajizadegan, a prominent sociologist in Tehran, said in an interview, adding that the voter boycott had widened and tapped into the frustrations of a diverse economic and social class. “It seems that all the professional politicians and the current political groups and parties are losing their credibility and reputation.”

Election turnout is an important barometer of public sentiment in Iran. Despite posters like this one in Tehran encouraging people to vote in the recent parliamentary elections, turnout was low, an indication of voter frustration with the status quo.Credit...Arash Khamooshi for The New York Times

Voter turnout is one important indicator of support for the government, though critics accuse officials of artificially inflating the totals. The Interior Ministry, which runs the elections, said that 41 percent of eligible voters nationwide had cast ballots and that blank ballots constituted only 8 percent. Turnout in Tehran was about 25 percent, the ministry said, while other big cities reported around 30 percent.

By contrast, more than 70 percent of Iran’s 56 million eligible voters cast ballots when President Hassan Rouhani was elected in 2017.

Prominent activists, politicians and dissidents, including Narges Mohammadi, the jailed Nobel Peace Prize laureate, had called on Iranians to boycott the vote as a form of protest.

Many ordinary Iranians followed suit, saying in interviews and on social media posts that they had grown disillusioned after years of voting enthusiastically in previous elections for candidates who promised change but failed to deliver.

Since the election on Friday, Iran’s already battered currency has dropped further against the dollar, a grim marker for inflation and dwindling purchasing power for Iranians already suffering under an economy strained by American sanctions and corruption.

Senior Iranian officials appeared unfazed by the voter turnout and the rejection of established candidates. Mr. Khamenei, who had urged people to show up and vote, said the election represented an “epic” victory over Iran’s enemies.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader of Iran, leaving a polling station after casting his ballots last week. Despite much evidence to the contrary, he called the election an “epic” victory for the country.Credit...Arash Khamooshi for The New York Times

But others, including some well-known figures, openly mocked this claim. A former conservative president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has become a vocal critic of the government, said in a video that the official spin on the election made him feel sorry for himself and the country.

“What victory?” he asked. “Casting aside the people is not a victory, it is the biggest defeat.”

The voters’ discontent also surfaced in a separate election for the Assembly of Experts, an 88-person clerical body that will eventually name a successor to Mr. Khamenei after he dies.

Three prominent clerics with decades of leadership roles at the Intelligence, Justice and Interior ministries were voted out, among them Sadegh Amoli Larijani, the scion of an influential political family and the chairman of an appointed council that supervises the work of the government.

Many Iranians, including analysts and politicians, expressed skepticism at the government’s tallies, both of participation and blank ballots. They said the empty polling stations, widespread apathy and anger, and reports leaked to the Iranian news media of much higher empty ballot counts suggested the government was manipulating the numbers to save face.

Saeed Shariati, a political analyst and a member of a reformist political party, said in an interview from Tehran that blank ballots also represented a type of protest vote. If they were deducted from the total number of votes, the real turnout would be around 30 percent nationwide, he said.

“I really hope that the nation’s message is heard and understood, but my experience proves otherwise,” Mr. Shariati said.

Iran’s semiofficial Mehr News Agency said 12 percent of the ballots in Tehran were blank. The top candidate in Tehran, Mr. Nabavian, the cleric who called for the development of nuclear weapons, gained about half a million votes, according to official results, a number that represented just a small fraction of the votes in a city of around 10 million.

About 45 of the Parliament’s 290 seats remained undecided this week because the leading candidates failed to secure 20 percent of the total eligible votes, the threshold required to be elected. The Ministry of Interior said a runoff for those seats would be held in April or May.

Nominees of a conservative party attending a campaign event last month in Tehran. By and large, the conservatives fared poorly in the elections for Iran’s Parliament.Credit...Arash Khamooshi for The New York Times

Elections in Iran have never been free and fair, compared with the standards of democratic countries, because candidates go through a strict vetting process controlled by the government. But they had remained competitive and unpredictable to a degree until 2020, when the conservatives moved to consolidate power.

This month’s election saw even more candidates be disqualified. The Reformist Front, the umbrella party for reformist factions, said it had no candidates in the election. The competition was essentially among conservatives. And that is having an effect on the composition of the Parliament.

“We are witnessing a radicalization of the Parliament. A smaller minority of extremists will be ruling over a majority of people who are fed up and want complete change,” said Aliakbar Mousavi Khoeini, a former Iranian lawmaker from the reformist faction who is now in exile in the United States.

Former President Mohammad Khatami, the founder of the reform movement, surprised the public by not voting. In a meeting with members of his political party on Tuesday, Mr. Khatami said he, too, boycotted the vote because he wanted to stand on the side of the people and he did not want to lie.

“We can say based on the official numbers that the majority of Iranians are dissatisfied with the status quo and the current governance and this gives us little hope for the future,” Mr. Khatami said, according to a transcript of his comments published in Iranian news media.

The mood in Tehran was grim as elections approached. Public sentiment reflected poor economic prospects and lingering resentment over a harsh crackdown on protests led by women in 2022.Credit...Arash Khamooshi for The New York Times

Leily Nikounazar contributed reporting from Belgium.

Farnaz Fassihi is a reporter for The New York Times based in New York. Previously she was a senior writer and war correspondent for the Wall Street Journal for 17 years based in the Middle East. More about Farnaz Fassihi

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