Tehran, Iran – Polls have opened across Iran in the country’s eleventh parliamentary election, seen as a test for the popularity of President Hassan Rouhani‘s reformist-moderate camp, which has dominated Parliament since 2016.
Elections for Iran’s 290-member Parliament are set amid escalating political tensions, economic struggles and concerns of low participation. The spectre of the coronavirus infection that has killed two people also adds another layer of uncertainty to the electoral process.
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei cast his vote in the capital, Tehran, during the first minutes of the parliamentary elections.
In a speech after he cast his vote, Khamenei reiterated calls for a higher voter turnout, telling Iranians to participate in the elections “if they were interested in the country’s national interests”.
Voters on Friday will also choose replacements for seven deceased members of the Assembly of Experts, a clerical body responsible for appointing the Supreme Leader.
Nearly 58 million people are eligible to vote on pre-selected lists of candidates that represent more than 250 registered parties. All voters must be more than 18 years of age. Almost three million are first-time voters.
Voting started at 8am local time (04:30 GMT) at 55,000 polling stations set up at mosques throughout the country. More than 7,000 candidates, including at least 666 women, are competing.
Polls are expected to end at 6pm (14:30pm GMT) but can be extended. During the previous parliamentary elections in 2016, voting was extended due to high turnout.
Also known as the Majlis, Parliament is responsible for passing legislation in the country, approving the annual budget and ratifying international agreements and treaties.
All legislation passed by the Majlis is then approved by the Guardian Council and the President.
Iran’s Parliament has limited say foreign affairs, although it played a crucial role in some of the country’s pivotal moments, including in 2015 when it approved the nuclear deal with world powers.
The Majlis plays a bigger role in economic and other domestic politics.
Went to Tajrish Sq in northern Tehran today and finally found some signs of the upcoming general election on Friday 21 Feb to vote in the country’s 290-member parliament. #IranVote pic.twitter.com/MO53leI8Fp
— Arwa Ibrahim (@arwaib) February 18, 2020
The vote also sets the tone for next year’s presidential elections.
Five seats are reserved for the country’s religious minorities including Zoroastrians, Jews, Assyrians, Chaldean Christians and Armenian Christians.
Importance of vote
The vote is key as it is the first parliamentary election after the United States withdrew from the nuclear deal, between Iran and world powers in 2018 and reimposed sanctions against Tehran, including on its oil and banking sectors.
The financial measures put Iran’s economy into a tailspin with inflation reaching 33.5 percent and growth declining by at least six percent last year.
The vote will therefore determine the direction of the country as it grapples with a worsening economic crisis and a punishing “maximum pressure” campaign by the US.
According to Tehran-based political commentator and analyst Mohammad Eslami, the vote will “reflect the way people want the government to approach the West after the breakdown of the deal.
“It will tell whether people want more cooperation with West, or with Russia, China and tapping into domestic potentials instead,” he told Al Jazeera.
Despite calls from officials including the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei for a high turnout, surveys in the run-up to the vote indicated a lower voter turnout than at previous parliamentary polls four years ago.
“I won’t be taking part in the election, because voting [in Iran] is useless,” said Atefeh Ghadimi, a 25-year-old landscape designer said before the vote.
In addition to the deteriorating economy, which officials blame on US sanctions, some voters said they would boycott the vote because of a deadly crackdown by security forces on tens of thousands of people protesting against fuel price rise in November.
The military’s shooting down of a Ukrainian airliner on January 8 that killed all 176 people on board, mostly Iranians, was another reason cited for the boycott.
Still, others were said they would not participate because of the Guardian Council’s disqualification of more than 7000 candidates who registered in advance of the vote, most of whom were reformists including 81 current legislators.
But observers said things might change on the day.
“Iranians tend to decide on the day whether or not they will vote. So many people may actually end up at the ballot boxes,” Fatima al-Samadi, a senior researcher at the Al Jazeera Center for Studies, said in the run-up to the vote.
For most voters, the most important issues in the election is the economy. Other key issues include corruption, foreign affairs and the nuclear deal.
“This vote is about Iran’s economic conditions. We want a Parliament to resolve our high levels of unemployment and poor living conditions,” Mohamed Maleki, a 31-year-old journalist from Tehran, told Al Jazeera.
Parliamentary candidates in Iran are usually aligned with reformists or conservatives as the two main political currents.
But this time, the election will likely be a competition between conservatives supporting Tehran’s former mayor Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, who backed the 2015 nuclear deal and ultra-conservatives who rejected it.
All ballots are counted manually, delaying official results for up to two or three days after the vote.