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Iran Interior Minister Concerned Over Prospect of Low Turnout In Next Presidential Election

IRAN -- Iranian President Hassan Rohani (R) walks with Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli at the Interior Ministry in Tehran, December 21, 2015

Iran's Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli has expressed concern over possible low turnout in the country's next presidential election.

After Iranian officials announced the date on Sunday for the 2021 election, to be held on June 18, 2021, Fazli appeared on live TV Monday to cite the low turnout in February’s parliamentary election as cause for concern, with that election seeing the lowest turnout in 41 years.

The average national turnout figure was 42.5 percent, but the situation was even worse in Tehran and small towns near the capital, where the figure was between 21 to 25 percent.

After that election, Fazli attributed the low turnout to factors including the COVID-19 pandemic, the protests in November 2019 and the downing of a Ukrainian airliner in January by Revolutionary Guard missiles.

Fazli’s explanations surrounding the February election may not be accurate, as the government tried hard to conceal the outbreak of COVID-19 in Iran ahead of the elections. Meanwhile, critics have said that it was the violent crackdown on protesters in November that led to a reduction in voters' motivation to go to the polls. Up to 1500 protesters are said to have been killed in some 100 cities by security forces during the protests, although the government insists that less than 250 have been killed.

Another main factor leading to the embarrassingly low turnout in the parliamentary election may be a political reason. The hardliner Guardian Council that vets candidates for the election disqualified nearly all the prominent reformist figures who sought to run, reducing the eligible candidates to unknown figures backed by conservative parties.

Many Iranian analysts from across the political spectrum have said that they expect a similar situation in the 2021 presidential election. In the meantime, repeated statements by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has called for the electing of a young militant conservative figure as Iran's next president, will almost certainly discourage reform-minded candidates from coming forward.

Iranian voters' disillusionment may also stem from the failure of President Rouhani's financial policies and his unfulfilled promises to introduce economic, political, and cultural reforms, as well as the disappointing performance of reformist MPs in the previous round of the parliament, all of which could dissuade potential voters from making their voices heard in June.

Meanwhile, the performance of conservatives, neo-cons, hardliners, and ultraconservatives in the Iranian parliament may make the parties’ candidates less electable next year. Only a day before the Interior Minister expressed concern over possible low turnout, members of the Parliament proposed a motion to ban all social media platforms and suggested harsh punishments for those who use filter-breakers to circumvent the state censorship. Ironically enough, the measure was announced on banned platforms such as Twitter and Telegram.

Measures like this can result in a discouraged electorate, with this proposed legislation capable of affecting 40 million Telegram users and around 11 million Twitter users.

With roughly nine months before the presidential elections, Iranian media is mostly discussing conservative candidates for the position. Conservative figures such as State Auditing Organization Chief Mehrdad Bazrpash, former state TV chief Ezzatollah Zarghami, Mostazafan Foundation Chief Parviz Fattah, Vice-President Surena Sattari and Majles Research Center Chief Alireza Zakani are some of the aspiring candidates.

Well-known conservative politicians including Majles Speaker Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf and Judiciary Chief Ebrahim Raisi are also said to be still eying the position of president of the country, despite their powerful current positions as heads of the other two of the three branches of the Iranian government. Former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is pondering a presidential run as well.

Although there is little hope at the time for pro-reform figures to get through the Guardian Council's net, some seem willing to attempt a presidential run, including former MP and vice-president Mohammad Reza Aref, current vice-president Es'haq Jahangiri and Tehran City Council Chief Mohsen Hashemi.

Regardless of who will be running, the traditional barriers on their journey will remain the same, with the Guardian Council saying that the vetting for the next election will be more vigilant, since it falls on the year 2021 [Iranian year 1400], which is believed to be a landmark date.