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Iran's 'mock election' brings no hope of change

Shabnam von Hein
February 28, 2024

Voters in Iran will select a new parliament this week, though few of them are expected to show up at the polls. Many believe voting would not even make a difference.

A man walks past angel wing graffiti in Tehran
Hundreds of activists have called for a boycott of Iran's March 1 electionImage: Morteza Nikoubazl/NurPhoto/picture alliance

Iran is set to hold a parliamentary election on March 1, with over 61 million of its citizens eligible to vote. They are also asked to decide who will sit on the Council of Experts, a body which chooses the country's supreme leader, currently held by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Iranian media says some 15,200 candidates are competing for the 290 parliamentary seats.

"Most of the candidates, particularly in small constituencies, are doctors, engineers, civil servants, and teachers who are not affiliated with any political group," journalist Maziar Khosravi told AFP, a French news agency. By allowing such candidates to run, the government "wants to create local competition and increase participation" in the polls.

A man and a woman walk past a wall showing campaign posters
Enthusiasm for the elections is particularly low in TehranImage: Yuji Yoshikata/AP/picture alliance

And yet, only about 30% of adult Iranians plan to take part in the election, according to a survey conducted by a government-friendly institute and published by the Azar Qalam news agency. This percentage drops to 15 in Iran's capital Tehran. The survey's respondents say their main reasons for staying at home are perceived corruption and incompetence among lawmakers, as well as little hope for a better future.

Partying to attract voters

The election campaign officially started on February 22. Videos of campaign events from across the country have been circulating on social media, often showing people interacting in a festive atmosphere accompanied by loud music. The so-called "morality police" and the Revolutionary Guard militias are nowhere to be seen. In Iran, it's normal for them to stay out of the spotlight during the election season.

The Revolutionary Guard's top commander Hossein Salami appeared happy to make his voice heard in an attempt to motivate voters.

"As a simple soldier, who only serves the people, I call upon the Iranian nation to regard the upcoming election as extremely decisive," he told reporters. "The elections are not only there to vote for one candidate in one part of the country. Their effects are global. A high turnout shows that Iran relies on the will and the votes of the people even amid difficulties."

Salami and the rest of the country's elites seem to be aware that the divide between Iran's leadership and its people is now wider than ever before. After the brutal clampdown of the "Woman, Life, Freedom" protest movement in 2022, few are optimistic about political change.

Iran: Why women keep on fighting for freedom

Iranian system keeps getting more extreme

Sociologist Mehrdad Darvishpour, a professor at the Malardalen University in Sweden, told DW that Iran's political institutions have been losing influence as Islamic supremacy grew ever stronger.

"There were phases in the history of the Islamic Republic since 1979, during which the people believed in reforms within the laws and standards of the system and used the election as a simple way to protest," Darvishpour said. "The goal was to push against the religious leaders and strengthen democratic elements. But the outcome never led to actual reforms, because the system never followed the will of the society."

With time, the political system in Iran grew ever more radical and extreme, and the space for criticism shrank.

Who is Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader?

Many reformists and moderate candidates have been barred from running in 2020 elections without a plausible explanation. This also happened ahead of the current campaign. The electoral commission even barred lawmakers who are currently in office from running again due to a lack of so-called "ideological qualifications."

Nobel Prize winner Mohammadi tells voters to stay home

Pro-reform candidates say only 20 to 30 people have been allowed to run from their ranks.

"The elections in Iran are a tool to reinforce the illegitimate power of the ruling minority and justify the system of unequal resource distribution — a game of power and wealth," says Ali Afshari, a one-time protest leader now living in the US.

Over 275 prominent activists and civil society representatives have called for a boycott of the election. They point out to the "disgraceful" state of the electoral system and decry the "complete elimination of opponents." 

Iranian activist Narges Mohammadi wins Nobel Peace Prize

Nobel Peace Prize winner Narges Mohammadi also joined the calls to ignore the election.

"I stand with the people and boycott this mock election, to emphasize the illegitimacy of the Islamic Republic and the gap between the repressive, authoritarian regime and the people," she said in a statement from jail.

The report was originally written in German.

Edited by: Sou-Jie van Brunnersum