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Iran election: Voters likely to punish reformists

Shabnam von Hein
February 21, 2020

Iranians went to the polls on Friday to vote for a new parliament. For many of them, it is a chance to hold their lawmakers accountable. The parliament has proven to be powerless in the past few years.

A man casts his vote during parliamentary elections at a polling station in Tehran, Iran February 21, 2020
Image: Reuters/Wana/N. Tabatabaee

Many Iranians chose to abstain from voting in the parliamentary election on Friday. Ahead of the polls, there was a lot of chatter on social media and other platforms about boycotting the election.

A survey by the Institute for Social Studies at Tehran University in early February said that not even one out of four Iranians in the capital Tehran would cast their ballot. This is in sharp contrast to the 2016 vote, which recorded a 62% turnout countrywide, and around 50% in Tehran.

Mohammad Sadeq Javadi Hesar, who is a member of the reformist Etemad Melli (National Trust Party), anticipated a low turnout this year. "The driving force behind elections in Iran has always been the youth, as well as academics. But now they are disappointed by the government's hollow promises. They are frustrated, especially because they haven't seen a reasonable response to the crises in the past two years," Hesar told DW.

Women activists in Iran are also disgruntled. "Whoever goes to the polls will endorse the regime's crimes," 12 women political prisoners at a prison in Tehran wrote in an open letter. These activists called for an election boycott to protest against the regime's brutal handling of demonstrators.

Iranian voters skeptical

Disillusionment with reformists

Iranians have experienced a difficult time in the past two years. Last year, US President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew from the international nuclear deal with Iran. New US sanctions and Trump's "maximum pressure" campaign against Iran followed, which resulted in an economic crisis in the Middle Eastern country. However, the measures failed to force Tehran to agree to a new, comprehensive nuclear agreement.

Read more: Iran seeks compromise from Europe on nuclear deal

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei vowed to adopt a policy of "maximum resistance" against the US. Experts say that Iran's strategy to counter American pressure requires total obedience and support from Iranians, but it does not give them any economic respite.

The economic crisis has snowballed into a national crisis. When people started protesting against the crisis, Iranian security forces unleashed a brutal crackdown on them. Protesters were targeted by paramilitary forces – under Khamenei's supervision – as the authorities shut down the internet. The aim was to stop news and photos of the government's brutal clampdown from spreading.

The internet shutdown was administered by a young minister of communications. The parliamentarians remained silent spectators during this painful time. This made clear to many Iranians that when it comes to suppressing critical voices, there is hardly any difference between hardliners, moderates and reformers.

Read more: Where is the Iranian opposition?

Protests in Iran after downing of Ukrainian plane

The regime needs legitimacy

After the US killed top Iranian general Qassem Soleimani in early 2020, Iran carried out a retaliatory strike on US bases in Iraq. Two Iranian missiles accidentally hit an Ukrainian passenger plane near Tehran, killing all 176 people onboard, including 146 Iranians. To date, Iranian lawmakers have not dared to question the Revolutionary Guards, whose units were in charge of the missile attack.

"The Iranian people feel that the elected institutions have no power," Sadegh Zibakalam, a Tehran-based political scientist, told DW. "All important decisions are made somewhere else."

The conflict with the US has strengthened Khamenei, who is not answerable to any institution and has the final say in the country.

"Many voters are now wondering why they should vote at all. These disappointed voters are the ones who were once mobilized by reformist parties," underlined Zibakalam. "But there are people in Iran who are loyal to the political system and always go to the polls. They vote for the conservative candidates," he added.

Read more: Iran's military power: What you need to know

Almost 58 million out of 81 million Iranians were eligible to vote in Friday's elections. Analysts say a high turnout is crucial for Khamenei as the regime wants to interpret it as a sign of trust in the political system.

Nonetheless, Iran's parliamentary elections are far from democratic. The Guardian Council - which comprises the regime's loyalists, religious and legal scholars - already barred almost 9,000 candidates from participating in the polls. Among these are 92 incumbent members of parliament, most of them well-known reformist politicians.

Over 7,000 candidates were allowed to take part in the elections by the regime. Many of these are young and inexperienced candidates with one trait in common: their absolute loyalty to Khamenei.

Iran: Theocracy vs. democracy

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