By H Rastgoo
April 1, 2020
On the eve of the elections to the 11th Islamic Republic’s parliament on February 21, estimates by critics of the government, as well as various polls carried out by government agencies themselves, indicated that people’s enthusiasm for voting was very low.
For instance, on January 2, the Iranian Students Polling Agency (ISPA) published the results of a survey that showed only 24.2 percent of the people of Tehran wanted to vote and 85 percent of them were unhappy with the situation in the country. And just a week before the elections, a poll carried out by the University of Tehran’s Institute of Social Studies and Research found that, in answer to the question “at the present, are you generally satisfied with the situation in the country and how it is run?”, 93.7 of the people of Tehran were unhappy; only five percent said that they were satisfied.
Despite this, when election day arrived, official Iranian media published numerous reports about the “extensive participation” of people in the elections and even “a surge in the turnout” in some parts of the country. These reports emerged almost instantly, and the veracity of them could not be confirmed.
“Today people will set a new record in their glorious political history”
Two days before the voting, Abbas Ali Kadkhodaei, spokesman for the Guardian Council, said that the rate of participation would be over 50 percent.
“Turnout is about the same as the last election and in some provinces it is even higher,” he said on election day. And in the early hours of voting, Kadkhodaei tweeted: “the reports indicate a vast turnout of people at polling stations.”
In a similar vein, Mahmoud Vaezi, President Rouhani’s Chief of Staff, announced that “in some districts the rate of turnout has been reported to be higher than the last elections.” And the interior minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli claimed that “as of 12 noon the level of the turnout has been similar to the last parliamentary elections and is almost at the same level.”
Siamak Rahpeyk, a jurist member of the Guardian Council, gave his account on radio: “The reports and pictures in the media indicate a vast turnout by the people for the February 21 elections.” Quoting information that it claimed it had received from the National Elections Headquarters, Tasnim News Agency reported that the turnout was similar to the last parliamentary elections in 2016.
These claims were accompanied by numerous reports from official media about the turnout in various provinces. For instance, headlines in the newspaper Hamshahri, which is published by Tehran municipality, reported “long lines” and the “presence of old and first-time voters.” And the newspaper Kayhan trumpeted: “even coronavirus could not dampen the enthusiasm of the revolutionary people of Qom for the elections.”
According to Fars News Agency, the governor of Chaharmahal and Bakhtiari said, “I believe it is likely that today people will set a new record in their glorious political history.” Fars also quoted the head of East Azerbaijan’s Elections Headquarters as saying: “Because of high turnout in Varzaghan district, they have run out of ballots and we have sent them new ones.” From West Azerbaijan, the news agency reported that the number of ballots cast had increased by three percent compared to the last elections.
A random look at similar headlines by official Iranian media provides a good idea of the information people were fed on election day: “Excitement over elections reaches a climax in Astara” (Fars), “Even a snow storm cannot overcome the passion of people of Ardabil for the elections” (ISNA), “High turnout forces the use of new ballots at Tehran’s Abu Zar Mosque” (Tasnim), “Election passion in North Khorasan” (IRNA), “Election passion in Yazd province” (IRNA), “The passionate participation of people of Shiraz in the elections” (IRNA), “The passionate presence of people at voting stations in Neishabur” (Mehr), “The passionate presence of people in Isfahan for the 11th parliamentary elections” (Moj News), “Election passion in Zahedan” (IRNA), “Turnout of people of Sistan and Baluchestan for the elections is high” (Asr-e Hamoon), “The outburst of election passion in South Khorasan (Rasa News), “Election passion at various East Azerbaijan districts” (Mehr), “Election passion in Gilan in pictures” (Tasnim), “Election passion in Urmia” (ISNA), “High participation of the people of Fars in the elections” (IQNA), and so on.
Foot-Dragging to Announce the Turnout
When February 21 came to an end, it was time to announce statistics on voters, as traditionally had been done in past elections. And in the elections for the 11th parliament, officials had specifically promised that they would do as before, especially since on the day before the elections, President Rouhani had said that 98 percent of the ballot boxes in the country were electronically connected to the Ministry of Interior and that it would be clear, at any given moment, how many people had voted.
“Figures for participation will be announced the moment the elections are over,” said Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli on election day. And Esmail Mousavi, spokesman for the National Elections Headquarters, emphasized that “all statistics of participation in the elections would be announced starting at 23:00, when voting at many polling stations is finished.”
Nevertheless, as voting was drawing to a close, election officials gradually started making statements that showed they were hesitant or unable to announce the rate of the turnout. Anooshirvan Mohseni Bandpey, the governor of Tehran province who had traveled to the city of Shahryar to inspect polling stations, was the first one to share the news that “it has been agreed that the statistics will not be announced in small bunches but for the whole country.” His statement found wide coverage in the media and it was interpreted to mean that the turnout in many districts had been so low that the government did know how to tell the public about it.
The day after the elections and while figures of the turnout were yet to be announced, Esmail Mousavi said that the final figures “would be announced when the votes in all electoral districts are counted.” He added that “if the figures are announced too soon they might be contradicted later” but he did not explain why, in previous elections, turnout figures were announced before the tallies for individual candidates.
When two days passed and still no figures about the turnout were released, gradually many political figures began to raise their voices in protest. “At least release the final figure for the turnout that can be easily calculated by adding up the number of ballots used,” tweeted Ezzatolah Zarghami, former head of the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB), and definitely not considered to be a troublemaker. “It appears that the virus of breakdown in communication has spread from the crash of the [Ukrainian passenger] plane to the election results.”
A Record for the Lowest Turnout
At last, on February 23, the interior minister announced that 42.57 percent of the electorate had voted in the elections for the parliament on February 21. This was the lowest turnout in the history of the parliamentary elections in the Islamic Republic. Compared to the elections for the 10th parliament, it was approximately 19 percent lower.
The fall in the rate of turnout was true at the provincial level as well; for example, from 50 percent in Tehran to 26 percent, from 54 percent in Alborz to 28 percent, from 53.3 percent in Kurdistan to 31 percent, from 61 percent in Isfahan to 36 percent, from 60.4 percent in Central Province to 40 percent, from 56 percent in Gilan to 41 percent and from 70 percent in Khuzestan to 42 percent. In fact, contrary to the statement by the spokesman for the Guardian Council, who had said “turnout is about the same as the last election and in some provinces it is even higher,” turnout was noticeably lower in each and every province.
Even the 42.57 percent reported by the interior minister was seen as an exaggeration by many journalists and critics of the government, who pointed to the various reports from provinces, photographs of nearly empty polling stations and contradictions in official figures. But even if this official figure is accepted as true, it proves that rate of turnout had dropped seriously.
In addition, a considerable number of voters who did go to polling stations did not vote for any candidate. Instead, they cast ballots that were either blank or invalid. The interior ministry refused to release the figures for blank or invalid ballots but some media outlets published them, and they were striking.
For instance, according to the newspaper Islamic Republic, the number of “invalid ballots” in Yazd was 24,000, meaning that the second candidate elected in this district received fewer votes than the number of invalid ballots. The newspaper also reported that in “one of the electoral districts in Tehran province” — it did not name the district — 55,000 invalid ballots were cast, a higher number than the votes for the candidate who received the most votes.
Nevertheless, On February 23, Ayatollah Khamenei thanked the Iranian people for their “excellent participation” in the elections and attacked “the large-scale propaganda of foreign media” against this participation. “In the last two days, the pretext of an illness and virus was used, and their media did not miss the slightest opportunity to discourage people from voting,” he said, referring to the coronavirus outbreak, which the leaders of the Islamic Republic were still denying. It turned into an unprecedented national disaster soon enough.