Iranians vote in legislative, key assembly polls amid economic concerns

Conservative and hardline candidates are expected to win a majority as surveys indicate a low voter turnout.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei casts his ballot during the parliamentary and Assembly of Experts elections in Tehran, Iran, on Friday, March 1, 2024 [Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via AP]Published On 1 Mar 20241 Mar 2024

Iranians are voting for a new parliament in an election marred by frustration over economic woes and restrictions on political and social freedoms.

The election on Friday is the first formal measure of public opinion since antigovernment protests in 2022-2023 spiralled into some of the worst political turmoil since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

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Iranian officials and even Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei urged the public to cast ballots, but polling stations in the country’s capital, Tehran, appeared to have few voters.

Authorities have largely barred politicians calling for any change within the country’s theocracy, known broadly as reformists, from running in the election – leaving mostly only a broad slate of conservative or hardline figures.

Iran’s economy continues to stagnate under Western sanctions over Tehran’s rapidly advancing nuclear programme and the country’s arming of militia proxies in the Middle East and Russia in its war on Ukraine.

Some of Friday’s voters acknowledged the challenges facing Iran.

“There are many problems; too many problems,” said one voter, who only gave her last name, Sajjad. “We are sad, we are sorrowful and we voice our criticism as much as we can. God willing, those responsible [will] start thinking about us, and probably many of them do care.”

An Iranian man shows his ink-stained finger after casting his ballot at a polling station in Tehran [Atta Kenare/AFP]

Khamenei, 84, cast one of the first votes in an election that also will pick new members of the country’s Assembly of Experts. The panel of clerics, who serve an eight-year term, is mandated to select a new supreme leader if Khamenei steps down or dies, underscoring its increased importance, given Khamenei’s age.

About 15,000 candidates are vying for seats in the 290-member parliament, formally known as the Islamic Consultative Assembly. Out of them, only 116 are considered to be relatively moderate or pro-reform candidates. Those demanding radical changes are banned or did not bother to register given widespread disqualifications by authorities.

Experts expected a low turnout, with official surveys suggesting only about 41 percent of eligible Iranians would vote.

Turnout hit a record low of 42.5 percent in the 2020 parliamentary election, while about 62 percent of voters participated in 2016.

Assembly of Experts

Iranians also voted on the 88-member Assembly of Experts, for which there are 144 contenders, all senior members of the country’s powerful clergy.

The election of the assembly could prove crucial because it may determine the future direction of Iran, according to Sina Toossi, a senior non-resident fellow at the Center for International Policy.

“The Assembly of Experts is the body that appoints and supervises the supreme leader, who has the final say on all major political, religious and security matters,” he told Al Jazeera, pointing out that Khamenei has been in power since 1989.

“There is widespread speculation that he may not live to see the end of the next assembly’s eight-year term, which means that the members elected on Friday could have the responsibility of choosing his successor,” Toossi said.

Iranians fill out their ballots before casting their vote during elections to select members of parliament and a key clerical body in Tehran on March 1, 2024 [Photo by Atta Kenare/AFP]

Roxane Farmanfarmaian, a professor of international relations and modern Middle East politics at the University of Cambridge, said that if the predictions for a low turnout are confirmed, it would be due to the combination of economic woes and a feeling among the population that they are not “part of the political momentum”.

“There’s a great deal of despondency involved,” Farmanfarmaian told Al Jazeera, arguing that it has become “very clear” that the Iranian leadership does not really care whether the population is voting.

“They don’t see it as an implication on their own legitimacy,” she added.

Adnan Tabatabai, an Iranian affairs analyst and chief executive of CARPO, a think tank focused on the Middle East, said one of the reasons some people feel their vote will not make a difference is the lack of representation to address their complaints.

“They certainly have primarily to do with economic issues, but there are obviously cultural, social and political grievances where we see … a lack of candidates that would in a credible fashion embody the grievances that people have,” he told Al Jazeera.

“Therefore, we are currently seeing a disengagement … from those who are not satisfied with the current state of affairs,” Tabatabai said.

Polling places will be open until 8pm local time (16:30 GMT) after authorities extended the voting by two hours. Initial election results are expected as early as Saturday.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies