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Iran sees lowest voter turnout since 1979 amid coronavirus outbreak

Results of Iran's parliamentary elections
Results of Iran's parliamentary elections 02:56

Last Friday's parliamentary elections saw the lowest voter turnout in Iran since the Islamic Revolution that brought the country's ruling clerics to power more than 40 years ago. The election — seen as a litmus test of public approval for the all-powerful clerics who rule the country — was held amid fears that they're concealing the gravity of the coronavirus outbreak in Iran, and after security forces quashed anti-government protests.

The official body in charge of Iranian elections, the Guardian Council, disqualified dozens of candidates from even appearing on the ballots, including some incumbent members of parliament, calling them unfaithful to the principals of the Islamic Republic.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo dismissed the elections as an undemocratic "sham."

Record low turnout

Iranian opposition groups, mostly based outside the country as any real opposition to the regime is forbidden, have refused to participate in past elections and did so again last week. But this time, even many moderate and reformist groups that had persuaded people to participate in past elections asked people to stay home to show their distaste for the mass disqualifications.

The low turnout also comes after the Iranian regime's heavy-handed suppression of anti-government protests in November that erupted over price hikes on essential everyday goods. Then even larger protests were sparked, and again quashed, over the Iranian military shooting down a Ukrainian passenger jet just outside Tehran, apparently mistaking it for an incoming missile.

The violent reaction to those uprisings, plus all the economic hardship Iranians are enduring under the punishing U.S. sanctions on the country's government and economy, likely contributed to the low turnout.

Most of the parliamentary seats that were up for grabs were won by what Iranian officials call "principalists," a term used domestically to describe hardline conservatives.

Coronavirus and the election

Authorities had publicly predicted a low turnout to some extent, citing "recent events," but never mentioning any events in particular. One of the "events" they declined to acknowledge until the day before the election was Iran's coronavirus outbreak.

Before Thursday last week, there was no mention by Iran's state media of the virus having appeared in the country at all. Health officials had flatly denied there were any cases in Iran, dismissing "rumors" about an outbreak as the work of Iran's enemies. They didn't name those enemies, but the term usually refers to the U.S., Great Britain, Israel and Saudi Arabia, plus Iranian exile groups.

In the days before Iran confirmed its first cases, social media users posted warnings and criticism of the government, alleging efforts to try and cover it up. The government allowed airline Mahan Air to keep running regular flights to and from China long after many countries had banned such travel.

iraj-harirchi-iran-virus.jpg
Iran's Deputy Health Minister Iraj Harirchi (left) and another official speak to journalists in Tehran about the coronavirus outbreak in the Islamic Republic on February 24, a day before Harirchi was confirmed to have the virus himself. He coughed and appeared to be sweating during the news conference. Reuters

It wasn't until a day after the election that Iranian authorities began announcing official tallies of coronavirus cases and the death toll, under widespread pressure and protests at some universities.

The outbreak has become significant, with at least 15 deaths and almost 100 confirmed patients, including the deputy health minister. The semi-official news agency ILNA reported on Tuesday that Deputy Minister Iraj Harirchi is under quarantine, Reuters reported.

The spokesman for Iran's health ministry confirmed in an interview with state television that Deputy Minister Iraj Harirchi has been infected and is now under quarantine.

There continue to be many doubts over the accuracy of those numbers, as the rate of deaths compared to the total number of confirmed cases is much higher than in other countries.

The epicenter of the outbreak in Iran is the holy city of Qom, but it has spread fast to other cities, including the capital Tehran. Officials have reportedly even considered temporarily closing the holy shrine in Qom for the first time since Islam came to the country in the 7th century.

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