Iran holds elections amid fears record abstentions reflect popular unrest |  International

Iran holds elections amid fears record abstentions reflect popular unrest | International

Iran holds elections amid fears record abstentions reflect popular unrest |  International

About twenty years old, thin, petite, with long black hair down, dressed in jeans and a t-shirt. This is the description of the young woman who, last Tuesday, at 5:30 p.m. (3:30 p.m. in mainland Spain), approached a team from Iranian public television in Tehran, at the intersection of the central avenues Vali Asr and Azadi . The girl tore off her obligatory veil and T-shirt in front of the camera and, wearing a bra, began waving the garment over her head and shouting: “Elections without votes” and “(Iranians) will not vote. According to the account of two witnesses consulted by this newspaper, members of the Iranian security forces beat her while they tried to cover her with a chador, the black dress that covers women from head to toe. They then dragged her to a van which left with her on board.

The cameras were there to cover a student debate on the two elections being held this Friday in Iran: the legislative elections and those of the Assembly of Experts, the body renewed every eight years responsible for choosing the successor to the supreme guide. …of the country, something that could happen during this mandate; the current one, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is 84 years old. These two elections are the first to be held in the country after the protests triggered by the death, on September 16, 2022, of Mahsa Yina Amini, a young Kurdish woman arrested three days earlier in Tehran, accused of not wearing her hijab. His death in police custody sparked a wave of protests against the regime, suppressed by a crackdown that cost the lives of at least 500 people, according to Iranian human rights NGOs in exile. Another 22,000 people were arrested and eight young men were hanged.

The rejection expressed by these protests is still evident in gestures of civil disobedience such as that of thousands of Iranians renouncing the veil. Added to this detachment is a serious economic crisis with inflation around 50%. In this context, the challenge for the authorities is to achieve an acceptable participation figure. Especially since the result of the vote is known in advance: an overwhelming majority of ultra-conservatives in Parliament and total control of these candidates from the Assembly of Experts. The regime’s pre-selection of candidates for both bodies eliminated any other possibilities, as almost all reformist candidates, who believe that Iran’s political system can be changed from within, were vetoed.

Since the founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, declared in 1979 that the popular vote is “the measure of state policy,” the country’s leaders have used voter turnout data past elections, in cases above 70%, to legitimize themselves. Iranian expert Saeid Golkar, professor of political science at the University of Tennessee (United States), describes it as a “facade of democracy” in which the ballot boxes are placed, but they do not decide the distribution of power, “just like other authoritarian regimes do.

“Facade of legitimacy”

“Elected institutions in Iran are only there to provide this facade of legitimacy. They have no other function than to allow a clientelist distribution of wealth between supporters of the regime and particularly of Ayatollah Khamenei,” specifies this expert.

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If, as forecasts predict, a very large number of Iran’s 61 million voters abstain from voting, this legitimization mechanism would be disrupted. The regime’s crisis of legitimacy, which was already reflected in the low turnout rate in the 2020 elections (42.57%), would worsen. The repression of demonstrations provoked by the death of Mahsa Amini is another factor which suggests that this figure could be even lower this Friday, underlines Golkar: “Each new cycle of repression convinces more and more Iranians not to vote because they know that nothing is going to change.

According to a survey conducted by the ruling Iranian Student Polling Agency (ISPA), less than 28% of Iranian voters were sure they would vote in December. Another survey from the same agency this Wednesday brings this figure to 41%, while another opinion study from the Middle East Institute center, based in Washington, estimates the participation rate at the polls at 34% of the electorate. Golkar estimates these numbers will be even lower in big cities like Tehran, where he estimates turnout could drop to between 10 and 15 percent.

Political scientist Ali Alfoneh, of the Arab Institute for the Gulf States in Washington (AGSIW), points out: “In Iran, the simple act of participating in elections, regardless of how the people vote, is seen by the regime as a renewal politics. “loyalty” to the supreme guide, he assures. From Tehran, by telephone, Iranologist Raffaele Mauriello, professor at Allameh Tabataba’i University, emphasizes that voting “is a fundamental element of legitimization of the Iranian political system, in the same way as religious legitimacy.”

On Tuesday, the supreme leader again urged people to vote and defined those calling for abstention as “enemies of Iran.” This Thursday, Iranian media in exile Iranwire reported the arrest of 50 bloggers in the northwestern province of Azerbaijan. They are accused of “incitement to abstention”.

No opposition

The more than 15,000 candidates for the 290 seats in Parliament and the 144 candidates for one of the 88 positions in the Assembly of Experts were pre-selected by the Guardian Council, an institution made up of 12 Islamic jurists, six of whom are elected . …directly by Khamenei. The vast majority of reformist candidates had already been disqualified and therefore could not even run for office. Only around 30 have been allowed to attend, and an even smaller number are expected to be elected, meaning their presence in Parliament will not matter. Even some conservative candidates were excluded because they were not considered sufficiently loyal to the supreme leader.

The pre-selection of candidates in the Assembly of Experts was even more restrictive than in Parliament, in what some analysts interpret as an attempt to preserve the status quo after the death of the supreme leader. Even former President Hassan Rouhani has been barred from being re-elected to the Assembly that will elect Khamenei’s successor.

In these circumstances, the Reform Front, which brings together around twenty reformist organizations, refused to participate in elections that it describes as “meaningless, non-competitive, free or fair”. This Thursday, teachers’ unions asked teachers not to vote, according to the Persian edition of Voice of America radio.

Activists who supported the latest protests against the regime also called for a boycott. The 2023 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Narges Mohammadi, published a letter this week containing this request on her Instagram account: “Boycotting elections under a despotic religious regime is not a political act, but a moral obligation for Loving Iranians. “of freedom and who seek justice.” Mohammadi is serving a 10-year prison sentence in Evin Prison in Tehran.

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