Iran’s parliamentary election on Friday — in which only conservative candidates were allowed to run — was meant to buy Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s fraying regime an easy propaganda win.
The orchestrated vote now looks like a flop in terms of bolstering the regime’s legitimacy, however, thanks to the lowest turnout in the Islamic Republic’s history and growing concern that the government played down the scale of a coronavirus outbreak rather than risk empty polling stations. Coronavirus has now killed eight people in Iran, the biggest death toll outside China.
The U.S. State Department accused Tehran of deliberately downplaying the outbreak and of spreading misleading information. By contrast, Khamenei, who urged people to turn out and vote, complained that the virus had been used as propaganda by the countries’ enemies and argued that online messages had sought to deter people from going to the polls on Friday.
Since Friday night, Tehran has dithered over releasing even the “official” turnout figure in the vote for the 290-seat assembly but Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli on Sunday put it at a record low of just under 43 percent. This is way beneath 62 percent in 2016 and the 69 percent who turned out in the vote of 2000, which proved a big win for the reformist camp of President Mohammad Khatami. (Turnout in the last presidential election in 2017, when Hassan Rouhani beat the hardliner Ebrahim Raisi, was 73 percent.)
Friday’s turnout in Tehran was only 25.4 percent, according to the minister. Over polling day, officials had suggested low figures from various parts of the country. The regime does, however, have a long-standing ability to bus in loyalists for big events, and the closing of polling stations was repeatedly delayed on Friday in an attempt to swell numbers.
The election was an opportunity for Khamenei to regroup his hardline base after months of crisis, in which his forces killed hundreds of protesters in November and shot down a Ukrainian airliner last month, with the loss of 176 lives. Dispensing with the usual pretense of an open contest, the authorities this year simply banned candidates who were not closely allied to the regime. The Guardian Council, which vets who can stand, disqualified some 7,000 out of about 14,000 candidates. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo slammed the process as a “sham.”
Full results are not yet in, but early figures from Tehran showed a big win for conservatives from the camp of Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, a former mayor of the city, who is widely tipped as next parliament speaker.
In line with broader changes across Iran’s political and business landscape, the vote is expected to consolidate the powers of people linked to the ubiquitous Revolutionary Guards, whose interests now range from border security to construction. Qalibaf, for example, is a former head of the Guards’ air force.
Despite this year’s highly interventionist rigging of the parliamentary vote, Khamenei had hoped for “massive participation” in the election as a symbol of Iranians’ faith in their revolution and as a show of defiance to foreign enemies, which normally means the U.S., Israel and Saudi Arabia.
It is becoming increasingly clear, however, that Iranian officials were pressing voters to turn out and vote despite increasing evidence that a coronavirus outbreak in the country was more severe than originally feared.
In the aftermath of the vote, Iran suddenly announced a sweeping crackdown to try to stop the spread of the disease. It announced the closure of schools, universities, cultural centers and cinemas. Several sports fixtures will be canceled while several big sports matches will be played without spectators. Even a Tehran district mayor tested positive for the disease. Turkey, Pakistan, Armenia and Afghanistan variously closed their borders with Iran, or limited transport.
Such a broad reaction across the nation poses immediate questions of why Tehran decided not to delay the vote for reasons of public health, as it was clear by polling day that the outbreak had spread in places as diverse as the central shrine city of Qom and the Caspian Sea coast. The U.S. accusation of deliberate obfuscation will only compound public anger that the Iranian government repeatedly lied about its role in shooting down the Ukrainian airliner. Unusually in a country where officials are loath to admit their mistakes, Rahmani Fazli conceded that the handling of the airliner case could have kept voters away.
Khamenei, however, saluted the enthusiasm of voters in the conservative shrine city of Qom, which appears to be the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak.
“Although the people of Qom were at the center of this sickness, one of the busiest electoral constituencies was Qom,” he said.
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