Hard-liners dominate Iran parliamentary vote that saw a record-low turnout and boycott calls

It took days for Iran to announce the turnout statistics without explanation. The Interior Ministry run Iranian elections, which have no substantial international observation

Iranian Interior Minister Ahmad Vahidi
Iranian Interior Minister Ahmad Vahidi speaks during a press conference after the parliamentary elections in Tehran, Iran, March 4, 2024.Majid Asgaripour (via REUTERS)

Iranian hard-line politicians dominated the country’s vote for parliament, results released Monday showed, maintaining their hold on the legislature in a vote that saw a record- low turnout amid boycott calls.

While praising Iranians for withstanding “bad weather and continuous propaganda by the enemy,” Interior Minister Ahmad Vahidi said the vote saw 25 million ballots cast — a turnout of just under 41%. The lowest previous came in the last parliamentary election in 2020, which saw a 42% turnout.

It took days for Iran to announce the turnout statistics without explanation. The Interior Ministry run Iranian elections, which have no substantial international observation.

Friday’s vote turnout came after authorities kept polls open an additional six hours. Parliament speaker Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf even posted online, as polls appeared largely empty in Tehran, to urge people to call “their friends or acquaintances right now and convince them to participate in the elections.”

It remains unclear whether turnout was depressed by voter apathy or an active desire to send a message to Iran’s theocracy, though some in the country pushed for a boycott, including imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize laureate Narges Mohammadi. The vote also was the first since the 2022 mass protests over the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini after being arrested over allegedly not wearing her required hijab to the liking of authorities.

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

Authorities broadly barred politicians calling for any change within the country’s government, known broadly as reformists, from running in the election. Those calling for radical reforms or abandoning Iran’s theocratic system were banned or didn’t bother to register as candidates.

Of 290 races held for parliament, voters decided 245 seats in the first round, Interior Ministry spokesman Mohsen Eslami said earlier Monday. The remaining 45 will need to go through runoff elections, to be held in either April or May, as winning candidates failed to get a mandatory 20% of the vote.

Of the 245 politicians elected, 200 were supported by hard-line groups in voter guides published before the election, according to an Associated Press analysis.

The analysis also identified some 45 incoming lawmakers as relatively moderate, conservative or independent. The current parliament includes 18 pro-reform politicians and 38 others recognized as independents. Of those winning seats, only 11 were women. The current parliament has 16 women as legislators.

The failure of any candidate to get 20% of the vote can happen because many votes are voided, or because there are too many candidates in the race. Iran’s 2021 presidential election, which saw hard-liner Ebrahim Raisi elected, witnessed a high number of voided votes, potentially from those who felt obligated to cast a ballot but didn’t want to select any of the government-approved candidates.

Vahidi put the total number of voided votes in Friday’s poll at around 8% — about 2 million of the 25 million votes cast. It was nearly 13% in the 2021 presidential election.

“We witnessed a very good and extensive competition,” he told journalists. The election had the “highest standard of health.”

However, analysts described the vote as offering a different perspective.

“The Friday elections appear to have reaffirmed that Iranian policies will not change in the foreseeable future, but the vote demonstrated the Iranian public is broadly dissatisfied with the course the Islamic Republic is taking,” the New York-based Soufan Center think tank said in an analysis Monday.

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Nasser Kanaani dismissed criticism by the U.S. government over the vote.

“If U.S government officials are concerned about democracies and votes of nations, they should first find a fix for their own country and election system’s health in America itself as we are seeing strange stories in every U.S election,” Kanaani said, without elaborating. Iranian state media prominently features any negative story about America, particularly during U.S. elections.

Iranians on Friday also voted for members of the country’s 88-seat Assembly of Experts, who will serve an eight-year term on a panel that will appoint the country’s next supreme leader after Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, 84. Barred from that race was former Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, a relative moderate and current member of the assembly who reached Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers.

Raisi, a protégé of Khamenei who has been discussed as a possible successor to the supreme leader, won a seat again. Another possible successor is Khamenei’s son, Mojtaba, who holds no position in the government.

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