Iran’s Government Declares Huge Turnout in First National Vote Since ’09 Protests

The New York Times

WASHINGTON — Iran’s government declared an enormous turnout for the parliamentary elections held Friday, calling it another “epic” sign of support for Iranian theocracy and a thumb in the eye of the West.

In the first national vote since a disputed presidential election in 2009, scenes of crowded polling places and voters with ink-stained fingers dominated state television and online news sites, alongside none-too-subtle editorials declaring that the vote defied Western perceptions of domestic discontent in Iran. Iran’s opposition movement — whose leaders have been jailed or placed under house arrest — had called for a boycott of the vote.
Iran’s supreme leader and other top officials had called in recent days for high voter turnout as a way to show defiance toward the West at time of extraordinary tension. Iran’s economy is staggering under the latest round of sanctions, and there is rising speculation that Israel will bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities.
The elections, which had more than 3,400 candidates competing for the 290-seat Legislature, are widely expected to increase the control of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, over Iran’s complex political landscape. They are not likely to have any bearing over issues most relevant to the West, like the efforts to reach a diplomatic compromise on Iran’s nuclear program.
Interior Ministry officials reported an increase of 8 to 9 percent over the turnout in the last parliamentary elections, in 2008, according to the official Mehr news service. The official news agency IRNA declared the elections another “recurrence of epic incidents in the history of the Islamic republic of Iran that blinded the enemies.” Results are expected in two or three days.
The reported turnout seemed at odds with the short lines and relatively empty voting booths described by a number of Iranians in the capital and a few other major cities over the course of the day. “I went to two polling places at around 2 p.m., one a mosque and one a school, and there was hardly anyone there,” a 41-year-old woman in Tehran said in comments that were echoed by others. Many analysts and government critics have been asserting that the government, which has long held up voter turnout as a sign of its democratic legitimacy, was likely to declare high numbers no matter what.
But others cautioned that the official numbers could very well be accurate, especially in light of a recent campaign by Iranian high officials and clerics that declared voting a national and religious duty at a time of stress and danger. The appeals to patriotism and piety are especially effective in Iran’s hinterland, away from the more worldly precincts of northern Tehran. “We are a minuscule minority up here,” said Mohammad Ali Shabani, a political analyst in Tehran. “They portrayed a high turnout as a way to show unity and resistance in the face of sanctions.”
Results of the vote have been dismissed as meaningless by many of the opposition supporters who filled the streets during the antigovernment protests set off by the disputed presidential election of 2009. That was followed by a harsh crackdown, lasting months, that effectively destroyed the reformist movement and any allied opposition.
Lying below the surface of this year’s election is a fierce struggle between partisans and rivals of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose second and final term ends next year. He hopes to maintain influence by electing lawmakers who are loyal to him. That has irked Ayatollah Khamenei, who has empowered lawmaker allies to cut the president down to size. Iran’s Parliament is weak, and if the election yields an even more compliant body, it could become easier for the supreme leader to abolish the office of the president in a further consolidation of his power, something he hinted at last year.
J. David Goodman contributed reporting from New York, and Alan Cowell from London.