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Record-Low Voter Turnout Signals Shift in Iranian Politics Amid Rising Dissent

March 5, 2024
Pezhman Tahavori
4 min read
Last week's elections in Iran have set a significant precedent with a record-low voter turnout since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, which brought clerical rulers to power
Last week's elections in Iran have set a significant precedent with a record-low voter turnout since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, which brought clerical rulers to power

Last week's elections in Iran have set a significant precedent with a record-low voter turnout since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, which brought clerical rulers to power. 

At approximately 40 percent, the turnout figure contrasts sharply with previous elections, where it often soared above 55 percent and sometimes even reached 75 percent.

While such a turnout might be deemed acceptable in Western democracies, its implications in Iran are profound, highlighting a widening gap between the Islamic Republic and the people.

The drop in civic participation speaks volumes to policymakers and observers: Mahsa Amini's death in custody has worsened the divide between the government and the people.

Amini died in police custody on September 16, 2022, after her arrest for "improper" hijab. Her death sparked the Woman, Life, Freedom movement in Iran, resulting in months of protests.

Is the 40 Percent Turnout Real?

In Iran, doubts persist among political observers regarding the accuracy of voter turnout figures released by the country's election authorities.

This skepticism arises due to the absence of an independent election commission, with elections being administered by the government and overseen by the politically-aligned Guardian Council.

Appointed by the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic, the Guardian Council's close ties to the government raise concerns about potential bias and collusion in reporting statistics.

The lack of international election observers and restricting non-governmental organizations from monitoring the electoral process further compound these doubts.

Consequently, many question the validity of the reported 40 percent turnout, suspecting the actual participation rate to be lower.

Notably, in Tehran, Iran's political hub, voter turnout stood at approximately 20 percent, reflecting widespread discontent with the country's political system.

Unlike in smaller towns, where factors like familial and ethnic rivalries may influence turnout, Tehran's low participation underscores broader concerns regarding the legitimacy of Iran's government.

Why Did Iranians Boycott Elections?

In the past two decades, Iranians have sought to voice their discontent by engaging in electoral processes, often by voting for opposition candidates in a bid to challenge the government's grip on power.

At times, these efforts led to the removal of government-favored candidates from elected positions.

However, the government's persistent ineffectiveness and the systematic disqualification of reformist individuals from running for office have rendered the protest voting largely futile.

Since 2019, Iranians have increasingly opted to boycott what they perceive as controlled and manipulated elections.

The government's failure to address the grievances of the populace has only reinforced this trend.

Significance of Election Boycotts 

Mohammad Khatami, the former president of Iran and prominent figure in the reformist movement, made a notable decision: he boycotted the elections and declined to participate.

This marked the first instance of such a move, signaling a shift in the reformists' approach to Iran's politics.

Just a year earlier, Mir-Hossein Mousavi, former prime minister and leader of the Green Movement who had been under house arrest following the 2009 elections, had issued a statement advocating for constitutional reform and a transition to democracy in Iran.

Khatami's election boycott following Mousavi's statement underscores a growing determination among reformists to engage in a more assertive confrontation with the government.

This development sets the stage for a distinct and pronounced division between supporters and opponents of the Islamic Republic.

The routine disqualification of former presidents and speakers of parliament from participating in elections has become commonplace in Iran.

However, the official boycott of elections by such prominent figures was previously unheard of.

Khatami's decision to break this taboo is significant, and it may pave the way for other political figures to follow suit in future elections, challenging the legitimacy of the electoral process and signaling a deeper dissatisfaction with the current political system.

National Elections to Factional Contests

The boycott of elections by reformists has transformed the electoral landscape within the Islamic Republic into internal factional battles.

With the systematic exclusion of reformist candidates by the Guardian Council—a body responsible for vetting candidates—viable options for electoral competition have been limited for years.

Consequently, the recent parliamentary elections saw a consolidation of fundamentalist factions, unlike previous periods where distinct lists of fundamentalists or reformists dominated Tehran.

Rather than a single cohesive list, multiple electoral factions emerged among fundamentalists, resulting in a fragmented representation in Tehran.

Remarkably, due to the failure of candidates to secure the required voter threshold, approximately half of Tehran's 30 seats remained vacant.

Candidates ranked 16th to 45th will now enter a second phase of elections, which is an unusual occurrence in Tehran.

According to law, the second-phase elections occur one month after the Guardian Council approves the initial stage.

The second phase will determine 15 representatives for Tehran and conduct elections in 19 other constituencies around the country.

While the Guardian Council has not yet confirmed the election results, potential changes remain plausible.

Some unsuccessful candidates have begun assembling complaints against winning candidates, underscoring the Guardian Council's pivotal role in ratifying or nullifying election outcomes.

The twelfth parliament since the 1979 Islamic Revolution is set to convene on May 27.

The Stability Front, a radical faction, is anticipated to wield considerable influence in the upcoming parliament.

This group strongly opposes the 2015 nuclear deal, opposes reducing tensions in foreign policy, limits citizenship rights, limits women's rights, and supports an Islamic government without democratic elections.



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