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Source: CNBC

Mar 1, 2024

Iran holds first elections since Mahsa Amini protests, with low turnout and boycott expected

By Natasha Turak @NATASHATURAK

Iran holds its parliamentary elections on Friday, in the first vote for Iranians since a nationwide protest movement for women’s rights rocked the country in 2022.

Some 15,000 candidates are competing for places in Iran’s 290-seat Parliament, called the Islamic Consultative Assembly. The vote will also determine future members of the 88-member Assembly of Experts, which is a panel of clerics serving eight-year terms who choose the next Supreme Leader of Iran once the current leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, steps down or dies. Khamenei is 84.

But a low turnout is expected as many Iranians boycott the vote, disenchanted and angry with a system they believe is rigged or has been ineffective in improving their lives amid an economic crisis and broad lack of social and political freedoms.

“No one cares anymore. Nobody is going to participate and all the nominees are ‘approved’ by the government meaning people hate them,” Mehdi, a business owner based in Tehran, told CNBC. “The numbers will be so low that the government will probably fake them.” Mehdi requested only his first name be used for fear of reprisal by the Iranian government.

Imprisoned Iranian activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Narges Mohammadi called for a boycott and for international condemnation of the elections in a statement, saying that the boycott “is not only a political necessity but also a moral duty.”

“Transition from the despotic religious regime is a national demand and the only way for the survival of Iran, Iranians, and our humanity,” Mohammadi added.

Sanam Vakil, director of the Middle East and North Africa program at Chatham House, told CNBC that people are boycotting in “part because of protest and part because of disinterest.”

“There is a very clear awareness that voting for either of these institutions is not going to immediately impact policy or politics,” she said. “And providing the political system with overt legitimacy, after the very system has disregarded and abused people and civil rights, is just too much.”

Country analysts expect a nationwide turnout of between 30% and 50%, while state polling center ISPA estimated the turnout in Tehran at just 23.5% and 38.5% nationally. The figures would represent a continuation of recent years; the year 2020 saw the lowest-ever official turnout rate for a parliamentary election in Iran, at just over 40%, and 2021 featured its lowest-ever presidential election turnout.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei speaks with media after casting his ballot during the Iranian Parliamentary and Assembly of Experts elections at the Leadership office in Tehran, Iran, on March 1, 2024.

Photo by Morteza Nikoubazl | NurPhoto

The election itself is also highly restrictive, with Iran’s government allowing only certain pre-approved candidates to run.

Friday’s elections “are the most restricted and exclusionary elections in the history of the Islamic Republic,” Iranian historian and analyst Arash Azizi said.

“Most reformists and even many centrist conservatives have been disqualified from running. So there is very little to choose from. Second, Ayatollah Khamenei holds close to absolute power in the regime and all other bodies including the parliament are mostly ceremonial and have little power vis-à-vis the Supreme Leader.”

‘Woman, life, freedom’ protests

The boycott and frustration of voters follows years of economic pain and increased crackdowns on dissent and expression.

In September 2022, the death of a young Kurdish Iranian woman named Mahsa Amini in police custody lit the fuse that set off months of protests, creating the greatest challenge to Iran’s hardline rule in decades. 

Amini, just 22 years old, was arrested for allegedly improperly wearing her hijab, the headscarf women are required to wear under Iran’s highly conservative Islamic Republic. She died after allegedly suffering multiple blows to the head.

Iranian authorities claimed no wrongdoing and said Amini died of a heart attack; but her family, and masses of Iranians, accused the government of a cover-up. 

A protester holds a portrait of Mahsa Amini during a demonstration in support of Amini, a young Iranian woman who died after being arrested in Tehran by the Islamic Republic’s morality police, on Istiklal avenue in Istanbul on Sept. 20, 2022. Ozan Kose | AFP | Getty Images

The protests spread across the country and evolved from being focused on women’s rights to demanding the downfall of the entire Iranian regime. They led to severe crackdowns and frequent internet blackouts by Iranian authorities, as well as thousands of arrests and several executions.

In that context, it’s not surprising that many Iranians have no faith in their country’s political institutions, according to Behnam ben Taleblu, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

“Iranians no longer see a rigged ballot box as a way to bring even marginal political change. Instead, they have taken to the street, in different iterations of protest since 2017 to voice their discontent with the system in its entirety,” he said.

‘Disappoint the evil-wishers’

Ayatollah Khamenei was among the first to cast his ballot Friday and urged others to vote, deriding those who cast doubt on the election as Iran’s “enemies.”

“Pay attention to this, make friends happy and disappoint the evil-wishers,” Khamenei said in televised comments by the ballot boxes.

The pushing out of any reformist and even many moderately conservative candidates from the political race — including former Iranian President Hassan Rouhani — underscores the direction Iran’s leadership wants to take the country, especially as its supreme leader ages.

“Turnout or not, this tightly choreographed process is part of a larger hard-right shift in Iran’s politics by Khamenei, who is thinking about succession,” ben Taleblu said. He added that officials may try to inflate turnout numbers to “feign legitimacy abroad.”

Iran’s foreign ministry did not respond to a CNBC request for comment.

Some hardline politicians have even downplayed the necessity of high voter turnout, insisting that Iran’s government derives its legitimacy from God rather than from the public.

For Azizi and many others, while refusing to give the elections legitimacy is important, finding a political alternative that can engender actual change is even more urgent.

“A low turnout will once more show that a large majority of Iranians are disillusioned with the Islamic Republic and its institutions,” Azizi said.

“But even a very low turnout is unlikely to create political momentum on its own or change much in daily lives of Iranians,” he added.

“With the vast popular disillusionment in regime’s bodies in obvious display, the task of organizing a political alternative is ever more pressing for opponents of the Islamic Republic.”

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