Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 24 November 2020

Amid a boycott movement, Iran elections will hinge on voter turnout

Iranians shop in the Grand Bazaar in the capital Tehran on February 12, 2020. - Many Iranians, battered by economic sanctions, political turmoil and the lingering threat of military conflict, say they are in no mood to vote in the general elections. Speaking of heavy hearts and a sense of bitterness, Tehranis complain that they are tired of politicians who have failed to keep their word or to raise living standards. (Photo by ATTA KENARE / AFP)
Iranians shop in the Grand Bazaar in the capital Tehran on February 12, 2020. - Many Iranians, battered by economic sanctions, political turmoil and the lingering threat of military conflict, say they are in no mood to vote in the general elections. Speaking of heavy hearts and a sense of bitterness, Tehranis complain that they are tired of politicians who have failed to keep their word or to raise living standards. (Photo by ATTA KENARE / AFP)

The upcoming legislative elections in Iran on February 21 have monumental importance for the future of the regime in Tehran. For four decades, the Islamic Republic has relied on its deeply flawed electoral system to create the illusion of legitimacy. Now, after months of protest, all indications are that turnout will be historically low, unless – as has previously happened – the regime manipulates the outcome and stuffs the ballot boxes.

Voting in Iran raises a puzzling contradiction: what is the point in electing a 290-member parliament that is clearly powerless when all important decisions are made by an un-elected supreme leader and clerical bodies?

Elections have long been used by the Iranian leadership as propaganda tool to create the illusion of public support, fair representation and legitimacy in the face of critics at home and abroad. But every election season sees the bickering elites race to distribute lists of candidates that prove their loyalty to the regime and ensure they get a share of the spoils.

Voting in Iran raise a puzzling contradiction: what is the point in electing a 290-member parliament that is clearly powerless when all important decisions are made by an unelected supreme leader and clerical bodies?

This time, a clumsy power grab by regime hardliners has led to the elimination of many reformist candidates. The Guardian Council, the watchdog appointed by the supreme leader, has disqualified more than 90 sitting MPs and hundreds of reformist candidates. The hardliners see the parliamentary poll as a chance to forge a radical new assembly.

The main reason is that Tehran does not know how to respond to recent actions by the US. In the two years since President Donald Trump pulled the US out of the 2015 nuclear agreement – the signature achievement of former president Barack Obama and Iran’s pro-reform forces – and imposed tough economic sanctions, hardliners have pushed a more radical agenda of resistance. It has thus far failed.

During the same period, segments of Iranian society – especially the poorer ones – have taken to the streets repeatedly, most notably in December 2017 and November 2019. Different and disparate groups are organising; workers went on strike for back-pay and university students have organised protests both on and off campus. Women are on the frontline of resistance, protesting compulsory hijab laws. Members of ethnic minority groups including Kurds and Arab-Iranians have also joined the popular demonstrations.

Invariably at these protests, chants of ‘Down with the regime!’ can be heard.

This time around, authorities are taking the opposition’s calls for a boycott seriously. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps has warned that only a high voter turnout could help the regime prevail against Trump’s maximum-pressure strategy.

epa08224587 Iranians walk past an electoral billboard in a street of Tehran, Iran, 17 February 2020. Iranians will go to the polls to vote in the parliamentary elections on 21 February 2020.  EPA/ABEDIN TAHERKENAREH
Iranians walk past an electoral billboard in a street of Tehran, Iran, 17 February 2020. Abedin Taherkenareh/ EPA

This round of legislative elections comes after a series of disasters for the regime. Its illusion of stability and legitimacy was shattered after Tehran announced a 33 per cent increase in fuel prices at midnight on November 15. Almost immediately, thousands of people took to the streets to voice their discontent with the policy and the regime as a whole. In acts of peaceful protests, cars blocked motorways and people held mass tea parties in city centres in at least 100 cities.

The protests were halted only after a brutal crackdown conducted under a week-long internet blackout. The government has yet not released the final casualty figures, but at least 1,000 were killed and a further 7,000 arrested. In one encounter, the IRGC used heavy machine guns to mow down unarmed Arab-Iranian protesters. Demonstrations rapidly spread to 29 of Iran's 31 provinces.

Family members of those who were killed called for more protests. One such family was arrested en masse at a funeral.

This year, the killing of Quds Force commander Qassem Suleimani by a US drone gave the regime the chance to rally its forces and put on a big show of public unity. That meant mobilising every single one of its supporters but even so, the mourning ceremonies could not be described as a total success.

The public unity, in the end, was short lived, after a Ukrainian passenger jet leaving Tehran crashed. Tehran spent full three days vigorously denying having anything to do with it before being forced to admit that the Revolutionary Guards themselves were responsible for shooting down the plane.

Protests in the wake of that incident are once again calling for a wholesale end to this regime. Moreover, the people who sympathise with the victims of the plane crash are the apolitical middle classes.

Against the backdrop of the Islamic Republic’s recent spate of failures, voter turnout has become the key battleground in this election. Iranian social media is full of videos of potential voters, holding up their index finger, dipped in red ink to represent peaceful protesters killed in cold blood, to declare that they will not vote. A new online movement – called #RedInkCampaign – has been launched to that effect.

Iranians have historically been avid participants in their country’s elections, always in the hope of reforming the system. Their leaders have consistently exploited this enthusiasm to claim legitimacy. Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, for instance, recently asked, “If the Islamic Republic is so unpopular, then why are people participating in elections?”. But time and time again, these same leaders have interfered with the outcome using under-handed methods, and so the meaningful change voters are looking for has not materialised.

The Islamic Republic’s recent disasters have cracked any veneer of legitimacy the regime has. The opposition are uniting and flexing their muscle in ways not seen before. Should the turnout dip below the 50 per cent mark in this election, these cracks may never heal.

Masih Alinejad is an Iranian journalist and human rights campaigner

Updated: February 18, 2020 07:45 PM

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