The government sought a high voter turnout in Iran's recent parliamentary vote, and polling stations closed four hours late. Preliminary results suggest that reform and minority groups stayed away from the polls.
The Iranian regime has declared that over 60 percent of the population voted in Friday's parliamentary elections, suggesting a strong turnout despite boycotts from many reformist and marginalized groups within the multi-ethnic state. The number of reform-minded candidates in the parliament has already shown a significant drop-off in preliminary results announced Sunday.
The make-up of Iran's ethnic and religious groups is complex, overlapping across some categories and creating significant social and political divisions within the country.
Over half of the Iranian population is Persian, with estimates of the total percentage ranging from 50 to 65. The largest minority group are the Azerbaijanis, at between 16 and 24 percent of the population. The Kurds, at around seven percent, are the second largest minority. Smaller factions include Iranian Arabs known as Ahwazis in southern Iran, the Baloch ethnic group concentrated along the border to Pakistan and the Turkmen in the northwest.
Separated by faith
Iran's religious divisions often diverge from the lines separating ethnic groups. Iranian Kurds, Arabs and the Baloch are primarily Sunnis, in contrast to the Azerbaijanis, who are predominantly Shiites.
Sunnis - around eight percent of the population - form a minority in the predominantly Shiite country and struggle to find their place in society. They have tried without success for years to be able to build their own mosque in Tehran.
Though presidential candidates must be Shiite in order to run, that requirement does not exist for parliamentary candidates. But followers of non-Islamic religions in Iran, such as Baha'i practitioners, are socially disadvantaged or persecuted and play no role in politics.
Big obstacles to candidacy
The 12 authorities in Iran's Guardian Council allow few candidates to sit for parliamentary election, a fact to which opposition candidates and representatives of national minorities can attest.
This year the Guardian Council rejected the candidacy of Kurdish former parliament member Abdullah Sohrabi, citing "membership in illegal parties and groups." From 2000 to 2004, Sohrabi served as representative for two cities in the Kurdistan province.
The council's denial and accusations are misguided, Sohrabi told DW.
"In light of the Kurdish people's traditional aspirations for self-sufficiency, they are under more pressure than other ethnic minorities," Sohrabi said. "For that reason, candidates that are going to make political and social demands are often filtered out."
Various Kurdish parties called on Iran's Kurdish population to stay home during the parliamentary vote on March 2, signifying their refusal to take part in the political "show." Their joint statement also recalled the regime's brutality during and after the controversial presidential election in 2009 as a warning to those whom the government might see as dissenters.
Low motivation to vote
Minority ethnic groups face a second major obstacle to political participation in Iran, says Abdolrahman Dieji, an expert on the Turkmen people at Turkey's Trakya University. Though parliamentary elections represent the most biggest chance for the Turkmen and other small groups in Iran to gain a voice in the political system, tribal rivalries make it difficult for the Turkmen to agree on a candidate.
The intellectuals among the Turkmen are likely to have boycotted Friday's vote, Dieji added. And they were far from the only ones.
The Arab minority were the first among Iran's non-Persian speakers to come out publicly in favor of a boycott, reported Yusof Azizi Banitorof, head of the Center for Combating Racism and Discrimination against Arabs.
Iran's ethnic minorities do not always want and cannot always speak directly of staging a boycott. Faced with the Iranian establishment's rejection of their candidates and blindness toward their political concerns, minority groups have little motivation to exercise their right to vote.
Author: Parsa Bayat / gsw
Editor: Ben Knight