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March 5, 2024

Iran’s Subdued Parliamentary Elections: A Second Round in the Shadow of Low Turnout

Week of March 4, 2024 | Iran Unfiltered is a digest tracking Iranian politics & society by the National Iranian American Council 

The parliamentary elections in Tehran and sixteen other provinces of Iran have advanced to a second round, marking what is arguably the most subdued election in the history of the Islamic Republic. Observers and analysts describe this cycle as one of the “least vibrant,” evidenced by a severely low turnout nationwide.

Iran’s Interior Minister – Ahmad Vahidi – countered reports of an unusually high number of spoiled ballots, asserting that the participation rate stood at 41 percent, translating to 25 million voters. This figure – if accurate – would represent a slight increase in total votes cast from the previous parliamentary election cycle, which recorded a 42 percent turnout in 2020. Given the rise in the number of eligible voters from nearly 58 million in the last cycle to over 61 million this cycle, there was a slight dip in the percentage of reported participants this year.

Vahidi announced to journalists at the Ministry of Interior that blank ballots accounted for “5 percent” of the vote, with spoiled ballots potentially reaching “8 percent.” This large apparent protest vote would further undercut the government’s claim of a somewhat stable electorate. Despite these insights, Mr. Vahidi did not delve into the specifics of the Assembly of Experts leadership election

Meanwhile, Mohsen Islami, Iran’s Election Headquarters spokesperson, announced the results of both elections in Tehran after a significant delay, revealing only the “valid votes” without specifying the extent of spoiled ballots or the exact participation rate. In Tehran, fourteen male candidates achieved the necessary quota of securing 20% of votes cast for the Islamic Consultative Assembly. 16 seats will move to a second round, according to reports, with 32 candidates vying for the remaining 16 seats in elections scheduled for May.

Mahmoud Nabavian, a notable member of the hardline Steadfastness Front, emerged as the top vote-getter in Tehran with 595,770 votes, a notable change from his sixth-place finish in the previous Islamic Consultative Assembly elections with 821,203 votes. In the previous parliamentary elections, Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf secured over 1.265 million votes prior to his selection as speaker of parliament. In the current elections, he has only received 447,905 votes which is good enough to secure a seat and position him fourth in vote getters in the nation’s capital.

Nabavian, closely aligned with Jebhe Payedariis, is known for his hardline views within the country’s political sphere. Having represented his constituents in the ninth and eleventh sessions of the Parliament, Nabavian has consistently positioned himself as a vocal critic of Iran’s negotiations with the United States, including the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Nabavian has also advocated against the country’s engagement with the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) on grounds of national economic security. Controversially, he advanced unsubstantiated claims that the United States demanded the extradition of Qasem Soleimani as a precondition for banking relations with Iran. In addition to his geopolitical stances, Nabavian is an advocate for mandatory hijab laws. He has controversially described those participating in recent protests, sparked by the tragic death of Mahsa Amini, as individuals driven by licentious desires, seeking to promote immorality within society. 

Poor turnout was not limited to the capital. Beyond Tehran, elections in 14 additional provinces are set for a runoff. The unprecedented number of run-off elections despite a relatively stable announced participation rate, along with seeming discrepancies between vote totals and participation has raised questions among observers.

Similarly, the Assembly of Experts leadership election mirrored these patterns. Ali Reza A’rafi, director of seminaries and a member of the Assembly of Experts leadership, topped the polls in Tehran with over 880,000 votes, despite previously securing a seat with approximately 1.3 million votes. Reports from within Iran indicate a significant reshuffling of the Assembly of Experts, with IRNA, the official government news agency, estimating the lowest participation rate in Alborz province at 24 percent—a region previously marked by widespread protests.

This electoral cycle, the first since the “Woman, Life, Freedom” movement protests, was anticipated as a critical test for the Islamic Republic’s political stability and legitimacy amid extensive boycotts from various social strata. While the official turnout of 41 percent was largely equivalent to the last cycle, it would still mark the lowest turnout in the Islamic Republic’s series of elections. Moreover, in light of the many run-offs and spoiled ballots, there is ample reason to doubt that even this figure was reached.

Despite previous elections forming parliaments with minimal votes, current trends indicate a shift towards even lower thresholds, with Tehran’s leading candidate Nabavian securing less than half of the votes of the top candidate from the last term. Some districts saw invalid votes rank first or second, or the combined votes of the top three candidates did not match the top candidate of the same district in the previous term.

This means that the twelfth parliament is set to be deeply unrepresentative, with representatives set to legislate for over 85 million Iranians who haven’t even reached 10,000 votes. Moreover, many traditional conservatives faced defeat, paving the way for radical hardline representatives – previously a vocal minority – to be in position to gain control of the parliament. Critically, as well, former reformist President Mohammad Khatami stayed home despite pressure to cast votes and lend the proceedings a degree of added legitimacy. 

The participation of only 25 million eligible voters has sparked widespread discussion among officials, social media users and experts. Fars news agency, known for its ties to the Revolutionary Guard, cited the apparent participation of 25 million people in the elections as a triumph. The agency reported, “Anti-revolutionary media attempted to ensure the participation rate fell below 20 percent, rallying a wide range of foreign governments and terrorist groups to their cause. However, they were unable to reduce the turnout rate below that of the previous election.”

In response, Abbas Abdi, a well-known analyst and journalist affiliated with reformists, tweeted: “While the statement is accurate, it lacks significance. Like the conservatives, the opposition is prone to fantasies. Yet, such a level of participation is far below what is necessary for forming even a moderate parliament, let alone a strong one.”

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