Rising anti-government fervor, a biting economic crisis, and the absence of free and fair elections are likely to dampen voter turnout in Iran’s upcoming parliamentary elections.
Fearing a low turnout in the February 21 vote would harm the legitimacy of the country’s theocratic system, Iranian officials are pulling out all the stops to get the vote out.
'I Beg You'
President Hassan Rohani called on voters to get out and vote in the elections despite "possible complaints and criticism.”
“I beg you not to be passive,” Rohani, a relative moderate, exhorted the public on February 11.
His remarks came after the Guardians Council, which vets all candidates, disqualified some 9,000 of the 14,000 who people who registered to run, including 90 current lawmakers.
Iran’s reformists said that 90 percent of its candidates throughout the country have been barred from running.
In the 2016 vote, a bloc of reformists and moderate conservatives won 41 percent of the 290 parliamentary seats. Hard-liners won 29 percent and independents took 28 percent. Experts predict hard-liners to dominate the legislature.
Ali Rabiei, Rohani's spokesman, offered an even starker message to voters.
"The upcoming elections are the most important elections in the history of the Islamic Republic," Rabiei said on February 3. "The only way to prevent the collapse of Iran is by going to the polls."
'Go To Hell'
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei called for a high turnout and said voting was an act of patriotism.
“Any person who has an affinity for Iran and its security must take part in the elections,” Khamenei said in a speech on February 5. “Someone may not like me personally, but if they love Iran, they must go to the ballot box."
“The enemies that threaten the country and the people are more frightened of the public’s support than our military capabilities,” Khamenei added. “Yes, they are scared of our missiles, but they are more frightened of the public’s support. Taking part in the elections is a stamp of support for the system from the people, and it will lead to security.”
Public anger has mounted amid a crunching economic crisis that has been fueled by biting U.S. sanctions that were reinstated after President Donald Trump withdrew Washington from the landmark international agreement that curbed Iran’s controversial nuclear program.
When officials announced gasoline rationing and price hikes in November 2019, anti-government protests erupted in more than 100 Iranian cities and turned violent before security forces violently put them down amid an Internet blackout.
Amnesty International said more than 300 people were killed and thousands detained in the crackdown.
In January, Iran shot down a Ukraine International Airlines (UIA) flight after it took off from a Tehran airport, killing all 176 people aboard.
Iranian authorities initially denied any responsibility for the accident. But three days after the tragedy the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) admitted the plane had been shot down "unintentionally," leading to days of protests in Iranian cities, with demonstrators chanting slogans against Iran’s clerical leadership.
Referring to Khamenei, mourners shouted "death to the dictator."
Ali Vaez, the director of the Iran Project at the International Crisis Group (ICG), said Khamenei’s call for people to come out and vote in elections that were even less free than previous votes shows the “disconnect between the state and the society in Iran.”
Ayatollah Ahmad Alamolhoda, a hard-line ally of Khamenei, went further by suggesting that those who stay away from the polls will receive divine punishment.
"Those who do not take part in the elections will go to hell," said Alamolhoda.
Gauging public opinion is difficult in Iran, where people can be jailed for their opinions. But there are signs of public apathy towards the vote.
A poll conducted by the state-run News Network on the Telegram app on February 5 showed over 78 percent of viewers said they would not take part in the elections. Although the posts were deleted, the poll was repeated with similar results.
Days later, the posts were deleted again, and a News Network presenter announced that the channel was fake.
Analysts said Iranians who would have voted for pro-reform and moderate candidates could decide not to vote, given the mass purge of reformist candidates by officials.
With the election results effectively preordained, analysts said it was unclear even if the conservatives and hard-liners could mobilize their supporters.
“What this means is that turnout is more important than who takes the majority of seats in parliament,” said Scott Lucas, an Iran expert at Birmingham University in Britain.
“Khamenei tipped off that priority last week when he appealed for a high turnout as a message to Iran's enemies,” he added. “The question is to what extent the regime will massage the turnout figures to get the magic number that it wants to declare victory over those enemies -- both at home and abroad.”