Calls for a Boycott Roil Iran’s Parliamentary Elections

As Iran prepares for a parliamentary election on Friday, calls to boycott the vote are turning it into a test of legitimacy for the ruling clerics amid widespread discontent and anger at the government.

A separate election on Friday will also decide the membership of an obscure, 88-member clerical body called the Assembly of Experts, which selects and advises the country’s supreme leader, who has the last word on all key state matters. While it normally operates behind the scenes, the assembly has the all-important task of choosing a successor to the current, 84-year-old supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has ruled Iran for more than three decades.

Iran’s leaders view turnout at the polls as a projection of their strength and power. But a robust vote appears unlikely with these elections taking place amid a slew of domestic challenges and a regional war stemming from the conflict between Israel and Hamas in Gaza that has come to include Iran’s network of proxy militias.

Analysts say Iranians have also lost confidence in elections after repeatedly voting for reformist lawmakers and presidents who pledged changes in foreign and economic policy and more individual rights that mostly failed to materialize.

A government poll cited last week by Khabaronline, an Iranian news outlet, projected turnout of about 36 percent nationally and only about 15 percent in Tehran. (The site said it withdrew the report under orders from the government.) By comparison, more than 70 percent of Iran’s 56 million eligible voters cast ballots for the reformist President Hassan Rouhani in 2017.

Mr. Khamenei on Wednesday urged Iranians to vote even if they are not satisfied with the status quo, stressing that voting was tantamount to protecting the country’s national security.

“If the enemy sees a weakness in Iranians in the field of national power, it will threaten the national security from various angles,” Mr. Khamenei said in a speech that was broadcast on state television. “Not voting has no benefits.”

But opponents disagree. Many prominent politicians, activists and the jailed Nobel Peace Prize laureate Narges Mohammadi have called on Iranians to boycott the vote to demonstrate that they no longer believe change is possible through the ballot box.

“The Islamic Republic deserves national sanctions and global condemnation,” Ms. Mohammadi said in a statement from her cell posted on social media. Sitting out elections, she added, “is not only a political necessity but also a moral duty.”

A group of 300 prominent activists and politicians, including former lawmakers and a former Tehran mayor, signed a joint statement calling the elections a farce because of the strict vetting of candidates that predetermined the elections’ outcomes. The government was “engineering the elections to confront the will of the people,” the statement said, adding that the signatories were refusing to participate in the “staged event.”

The main source of Iranians’ anger toward the government is its violent crackdown on demonstrations led by women and girls in 2022 and 2019 that killed hundreds of protesters, including teenagers and children, and the jailing of dissidents, students and activists.

That added fuel to longstanding grievances over government corruption and economic mismanagement that, along with foreign, nuclear and military policies that have impeded efforts to lift economic sanctions that are dimming Iranians’ prospects of earning a decent living.

Analysts say voter turnout in the elections will be an important measure of the government’s popularity and, by extension, its power.

“The elections are important for two reasons,” said Sanam Vakil, director of Middle East and North Africa program at Chatham House. “First, we are returning to popular protest through not participating in elections, and second, how low the vote will be could tell us something about the power base of the Islamic Republic.”

Even with low voter turnout, however, the conservative faction is expected to maintain its grip on the Parliament because its candidates are running largely uncontested. An appointed body called the Guardian Council, which vets all the parliamentary candidates, eliminated nearly all those who could be considered independent, centrist or reformist. Over 15,000 candidates were approved to run for 290 seats, including five slots for religious minorities, for a four-year term that begins in May.

The Reform Front, a coalition of parties that generally favor more social freedoms and engagement with the West, announced that it was not participating in the election because all its candidates had been disqualified and that it could not endorse any of the council’s approved candidates.

“At this moment, we have no space to maneuver and we have no choice,” Javad Emam, the spokesman for the Reform Front, said in an interview. “The relationship between the people and the state and the politicians has been seriously and deeply damaged.”

In Tehran, election posters and banners erected around the city this week by the authorities equated voting with nationalism and love for Iran — but not the Islamic Republic. “High participation = A strong Iran” and “Decide for Iran,” read two of the banners seen in photographs and videos in the Iranian news media.

Campaign rallies in Tehran have lacked the typical fervor of previous elections. In many places candidates delivered speeches to small crowds surrounded by rows of empty seats, according to videos on social media and witnesses. Outside the campus of Tehran University this week, election campaigners set up a microphone and invited passers-by to speak freely but they were refuted with dismissive shrugs and angry cursing, one witness reported.

Many Iranians dismissed the whole exercise as a waste of time. “It doesn’t matter who comes and who goes and who takes power — I have absolutely no hope of fixing this system, nor do I know a way to reform it through the existing constitution,” said Alireza, a 46-year-old scriptwriter in Tehran who asked that his last name not be published out of fear of retribution.

Vahid Ashtari, a prominent conservative who has exposed financial corruption and nepotism among senior Iranian officials and faced prosecution, has labeled elections “sarekari,” a Persian slang term for duping or tricking someone. He said in a statement on the social media platform X that outside the bubble of campaigning “people are living their lives” and could not care less about which candidate was running under which coalition.

Campaign events seemed to attract larger crowds in some smaller cities, where politics are more local and politicians are known through their clans. In Yasuj, a small city in southwest Iran, videos on social media showed a conservative candidate joining an impromptu dance party and energetically rallying the crowd of men and women — a clear bending of the rules that ban public dancing.

Some supporters of the government said their decision to vote was an act of defiance against the naysayers and Iran’s traditional enemies, Israel and the United States.

“I will vote and invite everyone around me to vote as well,” Rasoul Souri, 42, who works in a government agency in Tehran, said in a telephone interview. “When we participate in the election, the development of our country will disappoint our enemies.”

Analysts say Iran’s efforts to avoid war during the current tensions in the region are tied to its domestic dynamics. Mr. Khamenei, they said, does not want to risk external confrontations that could destabilize Iran domestically at a politically sensitive time, particularly when the issue of his succession, and by default the future of the Islamic Republic, is being quietly discussed.

The election for the Assembly of Experts could prove consequential, given its role in naming the next supreme leader. But a vetting process that disqualified a former reformist president, Hassan Rouhani, from seeking re-election to a seat he had held for more than two decades indicated to analysts that Mr. Khamenei’s successor will be a conservative.

“Given the high stakes there will be no margin for error for Iran’s ruling elite,” said Nader Hashemi, a professor of Middle East politics at Georgetown University. “Stage managing this election to ensure a loyal assembly will be a top national security priority for the Islamic Republic.”

Leily Nikounazar contributed reporting from Belgium.