Tehran, Iran – Presidential elections are scheduled to take place in Iran on Friday as the country continues to battle a fourth wave of the coronavirus pandemic.
Iran, with the deadliest outbreak in the Middle East, has reported more than three million cases, including 82,000 deaths.
A fourth wave of infections was reported shortly after tens of millions of Iranians were allowed domestic travel for the Nowruz new year holidays in late March and new strains of the virus found their way into the country.
While daily cases have reduced to about one-third of the peak, more than 100 deaths are still being reported every day amid a vaccine rollout that has been criticised for being too slow.
The presidential election – as well as polls for city and village councils, the parliament and Assembly of Experts – is expected to witness a low turnout due to public disillusionment and the widespread disqualification of reformist and moderate candidates, as well as the pandemic.
COVID has had a significant effect on how the landscape of the election cycle has taken shape.
Health protocols by the national anti-coronavirus headquarters assert that election gatherings and speeches can only be held in outdoor spaces like stadiums and schools if there are eight square metres of space for each person, the venue operates at 30 percent capacity with masks compulsory and the event is capped at two hours.
Indoor gatherings have been limited to 15 people for cities classified “red” in a colour-coded scale denoting the severity of outbreaks, while the limit has been set at 20 for “orange” and 30 for “yellow”.
But those protocols have already been broken as open-air gatherings for several candidates did not adhere to physical distancing requirements.
Frontrunner Ebrahim Raisi held a large rally in the southwestern city of Ahvaz last week, with images showing how thousands were crammed together and some were not wearing masks.
When questioned, Raisi said he had obtained a permit and while the national coronavirus headquarters said the event broke health protocols, no penalty was issued.
For Friday’s polls, Iran’s interior ministry has increased the number of voting booths across the country and ballots are to be placed in open-air spaces wherever possible to avoid overcrowding and boost voting.
The ICT ministry has also released an app that will help voters find the nearest polling station that is not crowded. Voting is scheduled to start at 7am and can be extended until 2am on Saturday with final results expected by noon.
A night-time curfew for vehicles has been in effect for months, but will be revoked on Friday and Saturday to allow people to drive to the polling stations. Travel between provinces will remain banned on Friday.
The elections are taking place as the coronavirus vaccine rollout is still lagging while the country closes in on the mass-production of locally developed jabs.
About 4.5 million Iranians, just over five percent of the population, have received at least one dose of vaccines imported from Russia, China, India, and the global initiative, COVAX.
Officials expect millions of doses to be imported before the end of the year but are mainly banking on local production to inoculate the country’s 83-million strong population.
Officials for Setad, a powerful organisation under Supreme Leader Ali Hosseini Khamenei that is overseeing production, said it can now manufacture three million jabs monthly and will boost production to 11 million doses per month in the future.
Razi COV-Pars, a vaccine developed by the Razi Vaccine and Serum Research Institute, is also undergoing human trials and is expected to receive emergency-use authorisation soon.
A third vaccine – developed by an organisation under the defence ministry and called Fakhravac to honour assassinated nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh – is also undergoing human trials.
These are in addition to a vaccine developed by Iran’s Pasteur Institute in cooperation with Cuba, which is undergoing its third phase of human trials in Iran and is also expected to be rolled out in large quantities.