Iranians are going to the polls on February 21 for parliamentary elections in which all candidacies have been pre-screened by hard-line Islamic clerics and thousands of applications from reformists and moderates have been rejected.
A total of 7,148 candidacies have been approved by the conservative clerics in Iran’s hard-line Guardians Council. The Guardians Council rejected the applications of about 9,000 Iranians who tried to run for one of parliament’s 290 seats.
Ninety members of Iran’s outgoing parliament were among those whose candidacies were rejected by the Guardians Council. Many were known as moderates or reformist lawmakers.
On the eve of the poll, the United States imposed sanctions on five election officials, including Ahmad Jannati, a powerful ultra-conservative cleric who is the secretary of the Guardians Council, for barring the candidates from the ballot and “denying the Iranian people free and fair elections,” said Brian Hook, the State Department’s special representative for Iran.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement that “clerics like Jannati have deprived the Iranian people of a real choice at the ballot box for the last 41 years.”
He added that the Iranian people “deserve the opportunity to express their opinions without being marginalized or massacred. The voices of the Iranian people must be heard.”
Polls open at 8 a.m. and are scheduled to close at 6 p.m.
A one-week official campaign season came to an end on February 19 — with authorities imposing a day of silence before the actual vote.
The Guardians Council has defended the disqualification process, saying it expects at least 50 percent of Iran’s 58 million eligible voters to cast ballotsacross 31 provinces.
“Our forecast is that we will have a good turnout in the upcoming election,” Guardians Council spokesman Abbasali Kadkhodaee said on February 19.
“The average turnout has usually not been under 50 percent, and we will witness a turnout of 50 percent in this election too,” Kadklodaee said.
Iranian officials say turnout in 2016 for the country’s last parliamentary elections was about 60 percent.
The February 21 elections are seen as a test of the popularity of Iran’s conservative clerical establishment.
Voting comes amid public anger over official corruption, Iran’s worsening economy, and Tehran’s handling of the downing of a Ukrainian passenger jet by Iranian air defenses that killed all 176 people on board.
A U.S. campaign of “maximum pressure” against Iran, including crippling economic sanctions, have hurt the country’s economy and contributed to a crash of the national currency — the rial.
Angry Iranians have taken to the streets protests in recent months.
The demonstrations have included anti-establishment protests in November, sparked by a sudden gasoline price hike in more than 100 cities and towns, that met with a violent crackdown by security forces.
Iranian leaders, including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, have called on voters to get out and cast ballots.
Khamenei has described voting as a “religious duty” while urging even those who don’t like him to cast ballots.
But inside and outside the country, some Iranians have suggested that voting in such an uncompetitive elections does not make sense.
Paris-based political activist Ali Keshtgar told RFE/RL’s Radio Farda that only candidates loyal to Khamenei have been allowed to run.
“Critics of the establishment have no chance of entering the elections,” Keshtgar said.
Jailed human rights activist Narges Mohammadi has called for an election boycott to protest repression imposed by state authorities.
“We need to rise up in the most civilized way and launch a strong boycott campaign to respond to the repressive policies of the government,” Mohammadi says.
Observers say election turnout could be affected by an announcement from Iranian health officials that five people have contracted the deadly coronavirus in Iran.
Those cases include two people who died from the coronavirus in the holy Shi’ite city of Qom.