Empty polls: civil disobedience by silence

Marjan Greenblatt

Feb. 20, 2020, 2:41 p.m.

In light of the elimination of the “Iran Deal” three years ago and Iran’s struggle to cope with the reinstatement of harsh US sanctions, the upcoming parliamentary elections are manifesting less as a mechanism for selecting the popular candidates, but rather as a test of the regime’s own popularity.  

Despite the country’s history of high voter participation, this round of elections has sparked grave concerns regarding anticipated low voter turnout.  Low participation rates are feared to represent a vote of no confidence in both the election process and the government itself and elevate the likelihood of escalated unrest and civil disobedience in the country.   

Anxiety over possible, widespread election boycotts is so palpable that the country’s leadership is doing everything  short of begging the masses, to bolster participation in the upcoming elections. Last week at a public event, President Hassan Rouhani emphasized the importance of the elections, literally stating “I beg of you not to be passive.” The so-called reformist leader, who has no women serving in his cabinet, surprisingly declared women to be the key to the success of the elections and appealed to their patriotic duty to participate in the elections. Additionally, on another occasion, Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei stated, “even if you don’t like me, participate in the elections for the sake of Iran,” in an effort to separate the leaders from the system of leadership. Election and campaign ads have resorted to highlighting the legitimacy of the election process and framing voting as a patriotic duty, rather than showcasing the candidates.   

The government has reason to be worried. Dissatisfaction has become a widespread phenomenon, according to a recent Goman survey conducted by Tehran University with a 5% margin of error, 93% of the residents of Tehran are dissatisfied with the current state of affairs and only 24% of the capital’s citizens are planning on participating in the elections.  

Public campaigns and conversations about election boycotts have dominated social media in a country that actively practices cyber policing and regularly arrests anti-government activists. Public frustration continues to grow on social media even with the ongoing threat of government retaliation, leading many to take bold risks against their government. Hashtags in Persian and English “Ray-bi-Ray" (elections, no, elections), ”finger in blood”, and #BoycottIranElections are going viral both among Iranians inside the country and their allies in the diaspora, despite the ongoing threat of government retaliation.  

Until recently, some Iranian voters were still motivated by the prospects of incremental change by self-proclaimed reform candidates with hopes for better outcomes. During this election cycle, boycotting has been projected to be the leading, non-violent protest against the regime; where protesters will stay home and forgo participating in corrupt elections rather than take to the streets. 

There is long standing mistrust in the election system. Every year, thousands of candidates are disqualified from participating in the elections. The filtering process, conducted since the inception of the Islamic Republic in 1979, by the Guardian Council, an unelected body of hardliner clerics, serves as a filtering mechanism to sort through the candidates and allow only the “trusted” ones, those seen to pass the regime’s litmus tests, to qualify for the ballots. This year, of the 16,000 potential candidates, approximately 9,000 candidates were eliminated by the Council, including conservative Parliament member, Motahari.  

While some believe that Reformists have delivered marginal changes to the country, a combination of unrelenting economic and social pressures have brought the masses to a boiling point. Chants of “hardliner, reformists, the story is over” have erupted from protesters in rhythmic procession over the past two years; revealing the increasingly irrelevance of political factions among young people, many of whom have  seen little promised change under leaders on both sides.                                    

As the polls open on Friday, the Iranian media will likely show footage of busy polling places with enthusiastic voters showing their inked fingers. Ultimately, the government will be judged by the number of participants and the regime’s willingness to let credible parties scrutinize the poll numbers.  

Marjan Keypour Greenblatt is a human rights activist and the founder of the Alliance for Rights of All Minorities in Iran (ARAMIran.org)

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