Wednesday 06 Oct 2021 | 14:32 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 06 Oct 2021 | 14:32 | SYDNEY

Suppose Iran held an election and nobody came?


Rodger Shanahan


27 February 2012 14:44

The problem with the Middle East is not a lack of voting; even Saudi Arabia had a vote for (some) municipal council seats in 2005. The problem is that the votes rarely mean anything. 

Amid the fighting in Syria, voters are going to the polls to vote in a referendum that President Assad says shows his commitment to political reform. At the same time, the Syrian military is trying to crush political reformists in Homs and a number of other centres of resistance to Damascus' minority Alawite rule. 

In Yemen, an estimated 60% of voters turned out to vote in the presidential election in which there was only one candidate – although this was not as absurd as it sounds, given it symbolised the end of the more than three decades of rule by Ali Abdallah Saleh.

This week also sees parliamentary elections in Iran, and while the results will give an indication as to the relative popularity (and, by association, strength) of President Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, most interest will centre around the voter turnout. 

That's because reformist candidates are thin on the ground, with the leaders of the opposition under house arrest and the main reformist parties banned since 2009; applications to run as a candidate in the election are down one-third from four years ago. There is also the standard impediment to would-be reformers of having to survive the scrutiny of the Interior Ministry and the Council of Guardians, which judge the candidates' Islamic credentials. In the last parliamentary elections in 2008, 40% of candidates were rejected.

All of this has turned the election largely into a vote between rival conservative factions. Already there are claims by some in the media that the Supreme Leader has directed state authorities to ensure that his supporters emerge triumphant. 

In many ways, this election is more important for the Supreme Leader than the President. The President's final term in office ends next year, and Ayatollah Khamenei will feel that his public support of Ahmadinejad following the 2009 election cost the office of the Supreme Leader dearly as he became sullied by the stench of vote-rigging that surrounded the ballot. 

A poor showing by Ahmadinejad's supporters will show that the voters are fed up with the Government. A poor showing by the Supreme Leader's candidates may be perceived by Ayatollah Khamenei as a loosening of his authority but can be explained away as proof of the vibrancy of Iranian democracy. 

A very low voter turnout, however, will be a referendum on the popularity of the system. And in a climate where Middle Eastern political systems are in trouble because they have lost the support of the people, the Iranian leadership will be paying close attention not only to overall turnout, but also the areas where participation is lacking.

Photo by Flickr user bbcworldservice.