Iran says voter turnout dips below 50% in a first since 1979

By Associated Press

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — Iran’s interior ministry said voter turnout in recent parliamentary elections stood at 42.57%, the first time it dipped below the 50% mark since the country’s 1979 revolution that ushered in a Shiite theocratic establishment to power.

The lower turnout is widely seen as a measure of how Iranians view the country’s government, with low turnout a signal of possible widespread dissatisfaction with Iran’s clerical rulers and the system they preside over.

Voters also had limited options on Friday’s ballot, as more than 7,000 potential candidates had been disqualified, most of them reformists and moderates. Among those disqualified were 90 sitting members of Iran’s 290-seat Parliament who had wanted to run for re-election.

Iranian hardliners also won all 30 parliamentary seats in the capital, Tehran, state TV reported on Sunday, but officials have yet to announce the voter turnout from the nationwide elections two days ago.

State TV also said that former Tehran mayor Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf, a top contender for the post of parliamentary speaker, was the top winner in the capital, with more that 1.2 million votes.

Iran’s supreme leader early Sunday accused enemy “propaganda” of trying to dissuade people from voting by amplifying the threat of the coronavirus.

A range of crises has beset Iran in the past year, including widespread anti-government protests in November and U.S. sanctions piling pressure on the plunging economy.

On the eve of the vote in Iran, the Trump administration sanctioned five election officials and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo slammed the election as a “sham.”

In remarks from his office in Tehran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei blamed the “negative propaganda” of Iran’s enemies for trying to discourage people from voting in Friday’s elections.

“Their media did not ignore the tiniest opportunity for discouraging people and resorting to the pretext of diseases and the virus,” he said.

Iran reported its first case of the virus two days before the national polls, and eight deaths have been reported due to the virus since then. That’s the highest death toll from the virus outside of China, where the outbreak first emerged a couple months ago.

Iran has confirmed 43 cases in total in at least five different cities, including the capital, Tehran, where some pharmacies have already run out of masks and hand sanitizer.

Schools were shut down in Tehran and across 10 provinces for at least two days, starting Sunday, to prevent the spread of the virus. Authorities have also suspended football matches and stopped shows in movie theaters and other venues.

Officials across Iran had encouraged people to vote in the days leading up to the election, even as concerns over the virus’ spread began to rise.

Iraq and Pakistan, which share borders with Iran, have taken preventive measures to limit the spread of the virus from Iranian travellers. Infected travellers from Iran already have been discovered in Lebanon and Canada.

Saudi Arabia ordered anyone traveling from Iran to wait at least 14 days before entering the kingdom as it seeks to prevent the spread of the virus to the Muslim pilgrimage sites of Mecca and Medina.

Meanwhile, the official IRNA news agency said ballot counting had come to an end on Sunday, with 201 out of 208 constituencies decided. The seven relatively smaller constituencies will be decided in a run-off election later in April.

Also on Sunday, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif joked about shaking hands with his visiting Austrian counterpart Alexander Schallenberg and told reporters: “We have to shake hands with them, don’t worry I don’t have coronavirus.”

In his meeting with the Austrian foreign minister, President Hassan Rouhani quipped that U.S. sanctions on Iran “are like the coronavirus” causing more fear than the reality, the official IRNA news agency reported. He urged Europe to resist U.S. pressure.

Schallenberg is in Tehran amid efforts by European countries to keep alive Iran’s nuclear agreement with world powers. Regional tensions have steadily risen since the U.S. withdrew from the landmark deal.