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Iran: Voter Turnout Dips Below 50%     02/23 09:43

   DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) -- Iran's interior ministry on Sunday said 
voter turnout in last week's parliamentary elections stood at 42.57%, the 
lowest ever in decades, in a possible sign of widespread dissatisfaction with 
Iran's clerical rulers and the state of the economy amid intense pressure from 
the United States.

   In comparison, turnout was nearly 62% in the 2016 elections. Turnout has 
consistently been above 50% since the country's Islamic Revolution some four 
decades ago. 

   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.

   Iran's hard-liners won all 30 parliamentary seats in Tehran, state TV 
reported Sunday.

   Iran's supreme leader and other senior officials had urged people to cast 
their ballots Friday as a show of resistance in the face of U.S. sanctions that 
have plunged the economy into recession. 

   The elections took place under the threat of the coronavirus that originated 
in China. Iran reported its first cases and deaths of the virus two days before 
the national polls, and many voters wore face masks as they cast their ballots. 

   The virus has killed eight people in Iran and infected 43 people across five 
cities, including Tehran. 

   The lower turnout is widely seen as a measure of how Iranians view their 
government. Some voters who chose not to cast ballots expressed apathy in the 
process and said the government had been unable to stymie the effects of 
punishing U.S. sanctions on the country.

   Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli said the lowest turnout from the 
vote was in the capital, Tehran, with just 25.4% of eligible voters casting 
ballots. He said the country voted under less-than-ideal circumstances, and 
pointed to the spread of the virus as one example, but said nevertheless, "we 
believe that the number of votes and the turnout is absolutely acceptable." 

   A range of crises has beset Iran in the past year, including widespread 
anti-government protests in November sparked by a rise in prices. There were 
also protests after the accidental downing of a passenger jet by Iran's 
Revolutionary Guard amid heightened tensions with the U.S. in January. 
Authorities initially tried to cover up the cause of the crash.

   President Hassan Rouhani had criticized the disqualification of so many 
moderates by the conservative Guardian Council, which is presided over by 
Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Rouhani said the disqualification was akin to 
customers being told they have options but being offered just one brand at a 
store. Still, in the days leading up to the election, he joined the chorus of 
official voices urging people to vote. 

   Iran's supreme leader on Sunday accused enemy "propaganda" of trying to 
dissuade people from voting by amplifying the threat of the coronavirus.

   "Their media did not ignore the tiniest opportunity for discouraging people 
and resorting to the pretext of diseases and the virus," he said in remarks 
from his office in Tehran.

   On the eve of the vote in Iran, the Trump administration sanctioned a number 
of election officials, including the 92-year-old cleric who heads the Guardian 
Council that vets candidates. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo slammed the 
election as a "sham."

   Nearly 58 million Iranians, out of a population of more than 80 million, are 
eligible to vote. More than 24 million voted. Almost half, or 48%, were women.

   State TV 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. 

   The vote took place as concerns over the virus' spread began to rise.

   Coronavirus clusters in Iran as well as in Italy and South Korea could 
signal a serious new stage in the global spread of the virus.

   Starting Sunday, schools were shut down in Tehran and across 10 provinces 
for at least two days to prevent the spread of the virus. Authorities have 
stopped fans from attending soccer matches and closed movie theaters and other 
venues across the country until Friday. Tehran University also suspended 
classes and shuttered its dormitories.

   Masks, sanitizers and plastic gloves have become scarce or their prices have 
soared in many drug stores in the capital due to high demand.

   Iran is already facing diplomatic and economic isolation by Washington. The 
virus threatens to isolate Iran even further, with some countries now barring 
their citizens from traveling there.

   Infected travelers from Iran have been discovered in Lebanon and Canada. 
Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait have effectively barred Iranians from entry, 
impacting thousands of religious pilgrims and businessmen. Turkey said Sunday 
it would close its border with Iran and halt all flights from its eastern 
neighbor.

   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, 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. 


(KR)

 
 
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