What to expect as Iran votes to elect parliament, religious leaders

Iranians will vote for members of parliament and the Assembly of Experts, which picks the country’s Supreme Leader.

Iranian parliament
Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi speaks during a parliament meeting in Tehran, Iran, January 22, 2023 [Majid Asgaripour/WANA via Reuters]

Tehran, Iran – Iranians will head to voting stations on Friday for parliamentary elections and to vote for the political and religious leaders who will choose the next supreme leader.

Tens of millions of people are eligible to vote, but voter apathy remains high in Iran as the country faces a multitude of challenges following a tumultuous period since the last parliamentary elections in 2020.

Here are the essentials you need to know in advance of the polls.

Who can vote and when does voting start?

Voters must be at least 18 years old. More than 61.2 million people are eligible to vote in a country of roughly 85 million.

Polls will open across Iran at 8am local time (04:30 GMT) and will remain open for 10 hours as per the law. In the past, time for voting has always been extended, sometimes going past midnight when there is demand.

Authorities have said 59,000 voting stations will be operational across the country, with 5,000 in the capital, Tehran, and 6,800 in the wider province of Tehran, which includes several other cities as well.

In 1,700 voting stations, voting will be carried out “completely electronically” with polling devices prepared to accommodate voters.

The Interior Ministry has dispatched 250,000 security force personnel to oversee voting and make sure the elections are held safely. Law enforcement will be supported by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and its Basij forces, along with the army. More than 90 people were killed in early January in a twin bombing in Kerman that was claimed by ISIL (ISIS), so security is expected to be tight.

Who is being elected?

The votes cast on Friday will determine the 290 lawmakers who will make up the parliament for the next four years.

Votes will also be cast for 88 clerics who will each take a seat for eight years at the Assembly of Experts, which is tasked with selecting the country’s supreme leader.

All candidates have been vetted by the powerful constitutional body known as the Guardian Council before being deemed eligible to run. The council, half of whose members are directly selected by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, also has to greenlight any law passed by parliament before it can move to the government for implementation.

Will many people turn out to vote?

The incumbent lawmakers – comprising mostly conservatives and hardliners – were elected to parliament in a February 2020 election that saw a 42-percent turnout, the lowest since the establishment of the Islamic republic after Iran’s 1979 revolution.

While Iranian elections regularly saw turnouts of over 60 percent or even 70 percent in previous decades, a trend of apathy has persisted in more recent years. Only 48 percent of the electorate cast their votes in the 2021 presidential elections.

Iran parliament
Iranian Parliamentarians attend a parliament session in Tehran, Iran on August 13, 2023 [ISNA/WANA via Reuters]

Why did voter turnout drop?

Quite a few factors are believed to have combined to cause low turnout at the last parliamentary elections in 2020. Those elections came just more than a month after the United States assassinated Iran’s top general, IRGC Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani, in a drone strike in Iraq.

In the aftermath, at a time when war with the US seemed to be looming on the horizon, the IRGC downed a Ukraine National Airlines passenger flight with two missiles, killing all 176 on board in an incident it said was caused by a “human error”.

Voting also came two days after Iran confirmed its first COVID-19 death after weeks of speculation that the virus was spreading across the country. The supreme leader in part blamed publicity surrounding the virus as a reason for lower-than-usual turnout.

By 2020, it had also been two years since the US had reneged on Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, imposing harsh unilateral sanctions on Iran.

Those sanctions remain in place and have continued to squeeze the country’s troubled economy, which continues to be dogged by its decades-long malaise of consistently high inflation – now at about 40 percent – and high unemployment.

Iran’s national currency, the rial, has also been slipping since the start of 2024, and was trading at approximately 585,000 to the US dollar on Thursday, having lost more than 15 percent of its value this year.

Moreover, the previous election came after major public protests that started in November 2019, while this year’s election is coming in the aftermath of the deadly September 2022 nationwide protests, which lasted for months and reverberated across the globe.

The elections for the 12th parliament and the sixth Assembly of Experts on Friday are also taking place as Israel’s war on Gaza has openly pitted the “axis of resistance” of political and military groups across the region backed by Tehran against the US and its allies.

Who is up for election?

Parliament speaker Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf is expected to be re-elected. He has urged people to vote for his 30-strong list of allied candidates for Tehran, which includes a range of conservative and hardline candidates, including six women.

The overwhelming majority of the rest of the seats in parliament are also expected to be won by such candidates, with all branches of power now dominated by these factions since the nuclear deal unravelled under former centrist President Hassan Rouhani in 2015 and pressures mounted on Iran.

The Reformist Front, a coalition of groups that acts as the closest thing there can be to an opposition party in Iran, has said it refuses to take part in a “meaningless and non-competitive” election. But some reformist and centrist candidates have joined forces with others in an apparent effort to form at least a non-conservative minority in the parliament.

Iran’s parliament has little say in the formulation of the country’s foreign policy and is mostly tasked with rules affecting local affairs, with issues related to the economy regularly at the top of the agenda. In recent months, it has also made headlines for legislation governing the way women are required to cover themselves and internet freedom.

Source: Al Jazeera