Polls close in Iranian parliamentary election

Election takes place amid escalating political tensions, economic struggles and concerns about low participation.

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    Tehran, Iran - Polls have closed in Iran's 11th parliamentary election, with hardliners expected to make gains amid growing dissatisfaction with the moderate and reformist bloc allied to President Hassan Rouhani in the 290-member house .

    The key vote on Friday took place against a backdrop of escalating tensions with the United States, a worsening economy, and an outbreak of the coronavirus that has killed at least four people in the country.

    As voters queued up to cast their ballots across Iran, the world's top anti-terrorism monitoring group, the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), voted to keep Tehran on its blacklist for failing to tackle "terrorism" financing. 

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    As of 3pm local time (11:30 GMT), 11 million of nearly 58 million people eligible to vote had taken part in the election, according to the Ministry of Interior, which did not provide further updates.

    Polls were expected to close at 6pm (14:30 GMT) but were extended several times. During the previous parliamentary elections in 2016, voting was extended because of the high turnout.

    The vote took place on preselected lists of candidates that represent more than 250 registered parties. Iranian voters also chose replacements for seven deceased members of the Assembly of Experts, a clerical body responsible for appointing the country's supreme leader. 

    A total of 55,000 polling stations were opened at mosques and schools throughout the country. More than 7,000 candidates, including at least 666 women, were competing. 

    Iran: Thousands of candidates disqualified ahead of elections

    Long queues could be seen at the main polling station set up at Tehran's Masjid al-Nabi, the main mosque in the middle-class Narmak neighbourhood where former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad lives.

    Meanwhile, polling stations in some areas in northern Tehran, a support base for the reformists, remained empty throughout most of the day.

    A spokesman for the Guardian Council, Abbas Ali Kadkhodaei, said in a statement that 200,000 supervisors from the council oversaw the polls throughout the country.

    On the eve of the election, the US imposed sanctions on five senior Iranian officials for allegedly preventing fair-and-free elections in Iran, the US Department of the Treasury said on Thursday. The blacklisted officials included Kadkhodaei and the Secretary of Iran's Guardian Council Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati. 

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    Polls were expected to close at 6pm (14:30 GMT), but were extended several times [Arwa Ibrahim/Al Jazeera]

    'National duty'

    Several voters told Al Jazeera they considered taking part in the vote to be "national duty" as it was the first election in the country since the US assassinated the top Iranian general Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad on January 3. Tensions between the two foes have been high since the US withdrew from the Iran nuclear dealin 2018, and reimposed sanctions against Iran, including on its oil and banking sectors. 

    The financial measures put Iran's economy into a tailspin with inflation reaching 33.5 percent and growth declining by at least 6 percent. 

    In addition to the deteriorating economy, the vote came after a series of national crises including a deadly crackdown by security forces on tens of thousands of people protesting against fuel price rises in November and the military's shooting down of a Ukrainian airliner on January 8 that killed all 176 people on board, mostly Iranians.

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    Ahmad Torkashavan, 55, a former Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) soldier who participated in the Iran-Iraq war at the age of 14 and then joined the Revolutionary Guard afterwards, said: "I feel it is a national duty to [vote], despite the difficult economic conditions that have discouraged some people."

    Tahereh Dervishi, 68, agreed: "Voting is a national and religious duty.

    "I voted for my country and our martyrs including Qassem Soleimani. We need a stronger parliament to fight our enemies, the US and Israel," she added.

    Ali Javanrodi, a 35-year-old civil servant, said he was "voting for candidates who will resist our enemies and unite our nation".

    "This vote is very important for our nation and its national interests against our enemies in the EU - France, the UK and Germany - as well as the United States," he said.

    The three European countries are still party to the nuclear deal, which offered Iran relief from global sanctions in exchange for curbs on its nuclear programme. However, they have struggled to deliver on the deal's economic benefits since the US' unilateral withdrawal. 

    Principlists expected to win

    The accord was negotiated by Rouhani's government in 2015, and reformist and moderate politicians allied to him won a parliamentary majority in 2016 on the back of promises to improve the country's economy following the lifting of global sanctions. 

    Iran elections: Voter apathy

    But the political tide has shifted amid anger at the ruling elite over the poor state of the economy, perceived mismanagement and a series of heavy handed crackdowns on dissent. The situation was further compounded by mass disqualifications of reformist candidates by the Guardian Council ahead of the election.

    The disqualification was sharply criticised by Rouhani and supporters of the reformist camp, many of whom said they would boycott the vote. 

    Abas Aslani, a visiting scholar at the Center for Middle East Strategic Studies, said if voter turnout proves to be lower than in previous elections, it would mean a stronger conservative presence in parliament. Such a development would increase pressure on Rouhani in the coming year ahead of next year's presidential vote. 

    Many observers see the election as a competition between conservatives supporting Tehran's former mayor Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, who backed the 2015 nuclear deal, and ultra-conservatives who rejected it.

    "If the principlists gain a majority in parliament it means that Iran's foreign policy will involve more escalation with the US," said Zohre Nosrat Kharazmi, an assistant professor of American Studies at the University of Tehran. 

    "The principalists would not support any more negotiations and renegotiations with the West," she added.

    Mohammed Hashemi, a political commentator, agreed. "It is safe to say that Iran's 11th parliament will be under the control of conservatives, which will likely mean tougher years for Rouhani and lead to rising tensions in Iran's internal and international politics," he said.

    "The new parliament will be comprised of parliamentarians who have mostly taken blatant positions against the 2015 nuclear deal," he added.

    What next? 

    All ballots are counted manually, delaying official results for up to two or three days after the vote, especially in larger cities. 

    On Saturday morning, the interior ministry will start releasing results for smaller constituencies.

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    The ministry of interior will also make an announcement about the voter turnout when all votes are counted.

    For candidates who do not manage to get at least 20 percent of the votes cast, their parliament seats will need a second round of votes, likely to be held on April 17.

    Final results will come in early next week, which will be approved by the Guardian Council. Those results will be released about two weeks later. 

    Also known as the Majlis, Iran's parliament is responsible for passing legislation in the country, approving the annual budget and ratifying international agreements and treaties.

    All legislation passed by the Majlis is then approved by the Guardian Council and the president.

    The parliament has a limited say in foreign affairs, although it played a crucial role in some of the country's pivotal moments, including in 2015, when it approved the nuclear deal with world powers. The Majlis plays a bigger role in economic and other domestic politics.

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    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News