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FRIDAY FEATURE – The Coronavirus Gets a Vote in Iran

Friday Feature

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Posted on: 
20 Feb 2020
FRIDAY FEATURE – The Coronavirus Gets a Vote in Iran
Iran is holding elections on Friday for its 290-seat Majles parliament, but many analysts are expecting a record low turnout despite intense cajoling by the clerical regime for the masses to signal their support for the current system by casting ballots. Amidst widespread dissatisfaction with the regime and a rapidly deteriorating quality of life for many in the Islamic Republic, voters seem to have little interest in legitimizing the regime by participating in a meaningless election. These sentiments have been stoked by the disqualification of over half the people running for a parliament which, in any case, has very little real power in a country ruled by the aptly titled “Supreme Leader” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his enforcers in the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. Meanwhile Iran announced that it had identified the Middle East’s first cases of the COVID-19 coronavirus this week, giving Iranians one more reason not to go to the polls.

"Our forecast is that we will have a good turnout in the upcoming election," Guardians Council spokesman Abbas Ali Kadkhodaei said on Wednesday. "The average turnout has usually not been under 50 percent, and we will witness a turnout of 50 percent in this election too."

"Voting is a religious duty...which will also guarantee the national interests of Iran...I am urging Iranians to vote early," Khamenei said as he cast his ballot Friday morning.

The cheerful optimism displayed in public by the regime, mixed as it has been by the constant begging by Khamenei and others for the public to vote, has led some analysts to speculate that even if the turnout is very low the regime will simply make up its own figures for public release. Official corruption and deceit have been routine complaints by anti-regime demonstrators over the years, intensified in recent months by the regime’s clumsy attempt to cover up the downing of a Ukrainian passenger jet by Iranian air defenses amidst a ballistic missile strike on Iraqi bases housing US troops in early January. The disqualification of so many Reformist and moderate candidates for Friday’s polls have added more fuel to this anger.

"Critics of the establishment have no chance of entering the elections," Paris-based political activist Ali Keshtgar told Radio Farda, in comments echoed by many other activists both inside and outside Iran.

But widespread dissatisfaction with the regime had already been manifesting itself for several months in the form of weekly and sometimes daily street demonstrations which often degenerated into violent clashes with security forces. Issues raised by the demonstrators included the difficult economic situation which the regime is seen as having largely ignored in its headlong pursuit of regional hegemony and its renegade nuclear program. Sanctions re-imposed by the Trump Administration in late 2018 following the US withdrawal from the JCPOA nuclear deal have contributed to these problems, but many Iranians blame their own government more than the US for this, despite frequent statements by the regime that it is the victim of a US-led conspiracy against it and appeals to the people of Iran for support against external enemies.

Other issues fueling popular discontent include environmental degradation. Pollution from the poorly supervised hydrocarbon industry is blamed for a large number of deaths every year in Iran, while Teheran has some of the worst air-quality of any major city in the world, with several other Iranian cities also high on the list. Additionally, the Islamic Republic has suffered from a series of natural disasters in recent years, with the regime’s lackluster response indicating little interest in the welfare of Iranian citizens.

Finally, the COVID-19 virus which has the entire world on edge this month showed up in Iran this week, with 5 patients being diagnosed with the disease on Wednesday, including two who died in the Shi’ite holy city of Qom, home to 1.2 million residents and located about 140 kilometers south of Tehran. Iranian Deputy Health Minister Mohammad Mahdi said that the Iranians infected with the illness didn’t appear to have had any contact with Chinese nationals, leading to speculations that they had contracted it from religious pilgrims who visited Iran from other countries. In any event, health officials have urged that all large gatherings, including religious services, be cancelled in Qom pending a full investigation to establish the source of the outbreak. It goes without saying that this would also apply to polling stations.

Meanwhile, Iran’s neighbors Iraq and Kuwait immediately announced that they were closing their borders to visitors from Iran and cancelling all incoming flights from the Islamic Republic, adding more downward pressure on Iran’s already depressed economy.

It is unlikely that the difficult domestic situation faced by the clerical regime which rules Iran will be made any easier by Friday’s vote, no matter what the outcome. Amidst widespread popular discontent against the regime, the sudden arrival this week of the COVID-19 issue on the front pages of Iranian newspapers means the coronavirus also gets a vote in the Iranian elections, potentially lowering what was already predicted to be a record-low turnout and further damaging the regime’s attempt to garner legitimization from receiving a popular mandate to continue governing the country.

But that could be only the beginning of a long list of new problems for the regime stemming from the deadly virus’s arrival. Analysts and officials in Israel and many other countries around the world will be watching closely to determine their next steps as the unfolding drama with the Islamic Republic continues.

Here is a video giving a brief recap of issues surrounding the current election