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Iran Voting Turnout In Question Due To Limited Choice — And Coronavirus Scare


In Iran, they're voting for Parliament today. Now, turnout for this vote has been in question, and there are a couple of reasons for that. First, there is not much variety politically among the candidates on the ballot. And second, reports of a couple of deadly cases of coronavirus have people jittery about gathering in crowds. NPR's Peter Kenyon is in Tehran. He's been out in those crowds today.

Hey, Peter.


KELLY: So when I said there's not much variety on the ballot, that is because it is tilted toward hard-line candidates. Is that right? How come?

KENYON: Well, that is right. And this tilting was done by a group known as the Guardian Council, which is charged with vetting candidates for office. When they did that for these elections, Iranian media report the council simply struck off the list some 7,000 moderate and reform candidates, thereby immediately eliminating any chance of those factions making significant gains in Parliament this year. So really, the only question now is, how many hard-liners will be joining or rejoining the Parliament?

KELLY: And there have also been some moves by critics of the regime to just tell people boycott and use that as a way of registering your displeasure with the regime.

KENYON: That was, yes, that was the reformist mantra - don't show up, boycott it - which, of course, solidifies the hard-liners' gains. But it's also a form of protest, yes.

KELLY: How much does today's election actually matter? I think most Americans are aware that Iran is ultimately ruled by a supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei. So how much power does Iran's Parliament actually have?

KENYON: They have some. They do have a role in this system, despite the supreme leader's high-ranking final say on everything. In recent years, Parliament, in fact, has been seen as kind of an arbiter between the hard-line supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and his supporters on the one hand, and the more pragmatic president, Hassan Rouhani, and his moderate and even reformist backers on the other.

Rouhani's had limited success pushing his agenda. And he, of course, was badly hurt when the Trump administration came in to Washington and pulled out of the 2015 nuclear agreement, which had been his crowning foreign policy deal. So now it'll be worth watching to see if the people who voted Rouhani in twice will now step back and let the hard-liners return to a bigger share of influence, at least in the legislature.

KELLY: So paint us a picture of Election Day in Iran. You've been out talking to people. What's the atmosphere?

KENYON: Well, no shortage of opinions. Everybody wanted to talk. That was not an issue. I'm sure you've experienced that yourself. You can find all manner of views on the streets here. I have one here for you Ibanez (ph), a 76-year-old woman. She told me she gets a lot of satisfaction out of voting for hard-line conservative legislators. Well, Iranians don't call them hard-liners, by the way. They call them principlists (ph), and that means standing up for the principles of the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

But Ibanez says she likes these principles because of the way they stand up to the United States and its allies. Here's how she put it.

IBANEZ: I support - a hundred percent support - the way we stand against America, against Israel, against all these nonsense political powers.

KENYON: But the other major wave of opinion in Tehran is about the urgent need for lawmakers to start doing things to improve the lives of the people here. Turnout was also down this time. Back in 2016, it was over 60%. And this time, the estimate is it's going to come in at about 50% of eligible voters.

KELLY: And meanwhile, there's this other factor that two Iranians who reportedly have died of coronavirus. What has been the effect of that on the elections and then just generally in the country?

KENYON: Well, big news of the day. Everyone's talking about it. The cases were actually down in the city of Qom. They weren't here in Tehran. But they have sparked fear that it could spread - it certainly has a habit of doing that - And some anger as well. People were asking why the government didn't report these cases until after the victims were dead.

There's some concern the virus might have spread farther and faster because the alarm wasn't sounded soon enough. And there's worries, of course, about the health system being able to deal with a coronavirus outbreak.

KELLY: NPR's Peter Kenyon there reporting from Tehran.

Thank you, Peter.

KENYON: Thanks, Mary Louise. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Peter Kenyon is NPR's international correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey.
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