Iran hard-liners win election, but with record low-turnout of 42.57%

Experts: Regime trying to prepare for more years of Trump.

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei casts his vote at a polling station during parliamentary elections in Tehran, Iran February 21, 2020 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei casts his vote at a polling station during parliamentary elections in Tehran, Iran February 21, 2020
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Iranian hard-liners won the parliamentary election by a landslide, capturing around 200 out of its 290 seats, but the regime was embarrassed by a record low voter turnout of 42.57%, Iran’s Interior Ministry announced on Sunday.
Recent elections have seen voter turnout at levels of between 60-66%, and the previous lowest turnout was around 52% in 2004.
In addition, observers view Iranian results as notoriously inflated, meaning that the actual turnout could be even lower.
While turnout was higher in the periphery, turnout in Tehran was around 25%, with the reformist party losing all 30 seats to hard-liners more directly affiliated with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Khamenei and other officials of the Islamic Republic issued a range of defensive and apologetic statements regarding the low voter turnout.
They alternately said the turnout was not actually low or that it was low because of Western interference, including propagating conspiracies that the West was overplaying the volume of coronavirus-impacted Iranians to scare voters away from the polls.
In fact, Iran itself has announced a continuously growing number of deaths and infected citizens, and many of its neighboring countries, such as Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Turkey have closed their borders to Iranians.
IDC Herzliya Lecturer and Iran expert Meir Javendafar said, “The fact that the regime took so long to announce it [the results] showed that the regime was really worried.
“The Iranian foreign minister says when he is abroad and people are demonstrating against the regime… ‘If we are oppressive, why did 73% of people vote’” in the 2017 elections? Now, Javendafar believes the low voter turnout has damaged Iran’s ability to use this talking point to bolster its legitimacy.
At the same time, Javendafar said that “it is not an immediate threat to the regime… it still has the backing of the security forces and the backing of around 20% of the population.”
However, “in the long term, it bodes ill for the regime because if the people of Iran no longer believe in the reformists or the principalists, then they have two options: either leave the country or turn up to demonstrate.
“The number of Iranians leaving will continue. Iran has one of the world’s highest brain drains, but now we could see even more demonstrations because people don’t see another way out. The Majlis wasn’t effective… The regime didn’t let it do its job, so what is the point of voting?” asked Javendafar.
INSS Iran expert Raz Zimmt echoed that the low voter turnout would “harm the legitimacy of the regime. Many citizens felt that there was no reason to vote. Most reformists were disqualified and the pragmatists were not so successful. The longer this situation lasts, it can be problematic for the regime. The regime likes to present the appearance of representing the nation, even if not as a democracy.”
On the flip side, Zimmt said that even the low turnout still means “there are still 40% [of the population], and outside of Tehran even higher, that are still ready [to vote] despite all of the problems, and the results being known in advance.”
Zimmt pointed out that though it was a “landslide victory for the conservatives [in Tehran], in most of the areas, no reformists were approved to run.”
Discussing the regime’s naked power grab when it disqualified over 6,000 opposing candidates, Zimmt said: “This is a continuous trend from the last two years of getting more extreme and showing shoulder to shoulder unity in the conservative camp.”
In order to present this unity, the regime sought to “take over all of the power centers,” which also will help it stand up to “external pressures… like the Trump ‘maximum pressure’ campaign as well as help starting to plan for post-Khamenei,” since the supreme leader is 80 and has been sick more often in recent years.
Zimmt asked rhetorically, “Will this also happen for the Iranian presidential election [in 2021] which is much more important? There is a connection. Usually, if the conservatives control the Majlis, this also has implications for the presidency.”
Moving on to whether anticipating Trump being reelected in November led the regime to try to grab more power in preparation, Zimmt said, “I don’t know their estimate regarding Trump. They must plan for if he is reelected.” Yet, he said that Iran might actually be holding back from the most provocative measures it took with the West “because maybe he won’t win,” and then the Islamic Republic may try to win back Western support.
If Trump does win, Zimmt said that Iran “could pick any of two different directions. It could say let’s at least agree to negotiate, where negotiate does not mean a real compromise, but a readiness to negotiate may lead to some reduction of sanctions.
“Or they could go in a more extreme and radical direction. Also, in the nuclear arena. They could leave the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, toss out the IAEA inspectors or increase their nuclear violations,” Zimmt added.
Zimmt did think that if Khamenei decided compromise was necessary after a potential Trump reelection, he would not have a problem molding the new more hard-line Majlis to follow his lead.
Javendafar added: “The regime will wait to see if Trump is reelected. In that case, the regime will come back to negotiate against its will because the economic situation in Iran is very bad.
“If Bernie Sanders is elected, he will likely go back to the deal, but it will still be difficult for Iran to do business because it has just been added to the FATF blacklist. So the economic problems will continue. The regime will not make any compromises if Sanders is elected.”