Elections and coronavirus in Iran

Iran desperately needs some change in the order of things

On February 21, parliamentary elections were held in Iran. There were 55,000 polling stations to elect 290 members of parliament. Just from Tehran, 30 members of parliament are elected and there are five reserved seats for religious minorities, consisting of Jews, Zoroastrians and Armenian Christians.

There were around 58 million eligible voters of which nearly 30 million were new voters. Only candidates scrutinised and approved by the Guardian Council were allowed to contest. This council consists of 12 nominated members, including six religious scholars of Shia Islam.

—Ali Khamenei the Supreme Leader of Iran— appoints the Guardian Council. The supreme leader also serves as head of the state and is the final authority on political and religious matters. All armed forces, judiciary, media, and the most important state institutions are answerable to the supreme leader.

Ali Khamenei became the supreme leader at the age of 50 in 1989. At that time after the death of Imam Khomeini, the most senior Shia scholar was Ali Montazeri, who had developed some differences with Khomeini six months before his death. That resulted in Montazeri’s removal as the deputy to the supreme leader.

In an unexpected move, Ali Khamenei who had remained president of Iran for eight years from 1981 to 1989 became the supreme leader. In all, during the last 40 years after the Islamic revolution in Iran, there have been five presidents who each ruled for eight years.

These were: Ali Khamenei, Hashmi Rafsanjani, Muhammad Khatami, Ahmadinejad, and current president, Hassan Rouhani. But for the parliamentary elections, all candidates have to apply to the Guardian Council that scrutinises and then approves or rejects their candidature.

The rejected applicants cannot contest elections. That’s how, for the February 21 elections a total of nearly 15,000 applicants approached the council which ultimately rejected over half of the applicants and only 7,000 candidates contested for the 290 seats that were up for grabs across the 31 provinces of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Most of the rejected candidates were reformists. Presumably, that’s why they were deprived of the opportunity to contest elections. Most of the conservative applicants were allowed to run. This time around only 42 percent voters exercised their right and nearly 25 million people cast their votes. Of which 52 percent were men and 48 percent women.

According to official statistics, in comparison with previous elections, the recent turnout of voters was the lowest. Tehran saw only a fourth of the eligible voters cast their vote.

In 2016, the voter turnout had been over 60 percent. One of the reasons for the low turnout was the fact that most reformist applicants were not allowed to contest. These included 80 incumbent members of parliament.

Obviously, when people realise that only officially approved candidates can contest elections, they lose trust in the process. Rejecting 80 incumbent members of parliament was a clear indication that the Guardian Council was not in a mood to allow anyone who could potentially differ with, or challenge, the opinion of the Supreme Leader.

In 22 out of the 31 provinces, including Tehran, the reformist faction did not support any candidate. Another factor was that people still remember how in November 2019 protest demonstrations were crushed by the state. This had angered the people who were also dismayed at the accidental shooting of a Ukrainian passenger plane.

Coronavirus may also have played a role in dissuading voters from coming out. Most of the neighbouring countries, including Pakistan have closed their borders with Iran. Some people had demanded that the elections be postponed and first the virus be tackled but the elections were held according to plan.

The Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, has accused the Western media of raising false alarm about the coronavirus situation in Iran. He blamed the turnout on the negative propaganda by foreign powers. Many reformist leaders did not cast their vote. They included a former deputy interior minister, Mustafa Tajzade. However, former president Muhammad Khatami did cast his ballot.

It is noteworthy that Khatami had supported the protests after the rigging allegations in the presidential elections of 2009. After that, Iranian media did not give any coverage to him and even his photos were not published.

But when he went to vote this time around, an official camera crew followed him. Former president, Ahmadinejad also cast his vote though many of his reformist friends were not allowed to contest elections.

A supporter of President Hassan Rouhani, Ali Motaheri, also cast his vote despite himself being declared ineligible to contest because he was a staunch reformist. Ali Motaheri has publicly said that he was informed by the authorities that he was being barred from election because he had disagreed with some of the edicts of the Supreme Leader.

It is worth mentioning that the losing candidate of the 2009 presidential election, Hossein Mosavi, has been under house arrest for over a decade now. So now, the conservatives had no strong competing candidates on 230 seats, and their win was as smooth as the Supreme Leader wanted it to be. In Tehran, the conservatives won all 30 seats. To win a seat from Tehran, the minimum requirement was a tally of at least 0.6m votes. A reformist candidate, Ali Reza Mahjub, who is also a trade union leader, could garner only 95,000 votes. The winning candidates —were all conservative or ultra-conservative.

And now something coronavirus.

According to international media, over 200 infected people had died by the first of March. The Iranian authorities confirmed only 50 deaths. Most of the victims died in Tehran where the number of infected people had crossed 400 in the first week of March.

After Tehran, the second most affected city is reported to be Qum where the number of coronavirus victims is reported to be 80. Among the top infected officials are Vice-President Masoumeh Ibtikar and Deputy Health Minister Eraj Hareerchi.

Some of the people travelling from Iran to Afghanistan, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, and Pakistan, have been diagnosed with Covid 19, the disease resulting from coronavirus.


The writer can be reached at [email protected]

Elections and coronavirus in Iran