The Iranian government is wary about a low voter turnout in the parliamentary elections which are to be held this Friday amid regional tensions involving Tehran and its proxies.

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

Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said in a speech this month, “Everyone must participate in the elections,” urging “influential personalities” to encourage people to vote. “The more fervent the elections, the more national authority and national security will be secured,” he said of the vote.

But a recent poll conducted by Iran’s state television found over half of respondents were indifferent to the ballot.

More than 61 million, out of Iran’s population of more than 85 million, are eligible to vote.

Boycott calls have come from some opposition figures within Iran as well as members of the diaspora.

The Reform Front, a key coalition of reformist parties, has said it would not take part in “meaningless, non-competitive, and ineffective elections”.

The Revolutionary Guard Corps has joined the chorus of regime voices pressuring people to vote. “For heaven’s sakes and in support of the homeland, Islam, the supreme leader and beliefs should come before the ballots,” Revolutionary Guard leader General Hossein Salami pleaded recently. He insisted Iran’s people “will overcome the will of enemy” and that the vote will go down in records as “another glorious political epic.”

Widespread discontent over the cratering economy, years of mass protests rocking the country, Western pressures over Tehran’s nuclear programme, its support for the Yemeni Houthis’ Red Sea disruption and Tehran’s backing for Russia in its war on Ukraine have many people quietly saying they will not vote in this election.

Officials have urged people to cast ballots but tellingly, no information has been released this year from the state-owned polling centre ISPA about expected turnout, a constant feature of past elections. Of 21 Iranians interviewed recently by The Associated Press, only five said they would vote. Thirteen said they would not and three said they were undecided.

“If I protest about some shortcoming, many police and security agents will try to stop me,” said Amin, a 21-year-old university student who gave only his first name for fear of reprisals. “But if I die from hunger on the corner of one of the main streets, they will show no reaction.”

Over 15,000 candidates are vying for a seat in the 290-member parliament, formally known as the Islamic Consultative Assembly. Terms run for four years and five seats are reserved for Iran’s religious minorities.

Under the law, the parliament has oversight of the executive branch, votes on treaties and handles other issues. In practice, absolute power in Iran rests with its supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

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

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 cooperation with the UN nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency.

That followed then-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 headscarf, or hijab, for women after the 2022 death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in police custody, which sparked nationwide protests.

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

Calls for an election boycott have spread in recent weeks, including from imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize laureate Narges Mohammadi, a women’s right activist, who called them a “sham.”

“The Islamic Republic, with its ruthless and brutal suppression, the killing of young people on the streets, the executions and the imprisonment and torture of men and women, deserves national sanctions and global disgrace,” Mohammadi said in a statement.

Though ISPA, the polling agency, conducted election surveys in October, its results have not been made public. Figures from politicians and other media outlets suggest a turnout of around 30 percent.

In the 2021 presidential election that brought hard-liner Ebrahim Raisi to power, the turnout was 49 percent, the lowest on record for a presidential vote. Millions of ballots were declared void, likely from those who felt obligated to vote but did not want to cast a ballot.

The 2019 parliament race saw a 42 percent turnout.

Separately, Iranians will also vote on Friday for members of the country’s 88-seat Assembly of Experts, an eight-year term on a panel that will appoint the country’s next supreme leader after Khamenei, 84.

Former moderate president Hassan Rouhani said that he was barred from seeking re-election to the assembly after 24 years of membership.

Iran is “very far from free and competitive elections,” former reformist president Mohammad Khatami was quoted as saying this month by the conservative Javan daily.

Source » thearabweekly