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Iran cracks down on calls for election boycott

Iran's flag (Dreamstime/TNS)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

Several people have been detained in Iran for allegedly calling for a boycott of parliamentary and Assembly of Experts elections scheduled for March 1.

A young woman was arrested on February 28 for “opposing electoral participation” in Tehran’s Valiasr Square during an event called “Free Tribune,” witnesses told RFE/RL’s Radio Farda.

They said the woman estimated to be in her 20s protested in front of a state television camera, symbolically removing her head scarf while declaring, “Vote or no vote, we will not vote.”

A street vendor, who claimed to have witnessed the event, said the woman was quickly surrounded and subsequently detained by several security personnel after she waved her scarf over her head in protest.

Other eyewitness accounts detailed the intervention of two female officers, who covered the young woman with a chador cloak, while five male officers forcibly escorted her to a van.

The woman, described as having dyed, long hair and a slim build, was reportedly shouting for the officers to release her. Security forces present at the scene issued warnings to bystanders not to film the arrest and to disperse.

Elections for the parliament, the Majlis, are scheduled for March 1 along with voting to fill the Assembly of Experts, with a majority of would-be candidates already disqualified.

Many Iranians have said they will not vote in what they said will be “meaningless” elections that are likely to consolidate the power of the country’s hard-liners.

U.S. State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said Iran’s elections could not be considered free and fair.

“I suspect that a great number of Iranians have no expectation that those elections will be free and fair,” Miller told reporters at the State Department on February 29.

“As you probably already know, thousands of candidates were already disqualified in an opaque process and the world has long known that Iran’s political system features undemocratic and nontransparent administrative, judicial, and electoral systems.”

In the lead-up to the election, “Free Tribunes” have been organized by student groups in Tehran, where sentiment against the elections has spilled out.

Similar events have taken place — in public and online — in several areas of the country.

In the West Azerbaijan Province, police chief Rahim Jahanbakhsh announced the arrest of 50 people responsible for managing social-media pages that authorities say incited public unrest and discouraged election participation.

The arrests, Jahanbakhsh noted, were conducted in coordination with judicial authorities, though the identities of those detained remain undisclosed.

Jahanbakhsh also warned that publishing any content deemed provocative on social media would be considered a criminal offense.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has tried to push the importance of high voter turnout in the elections after more than a year of unrest that had boosted growing skepticism over the efficacy of participating in the electoral process.

Independent polling on electoral participation is restricted in Iran, with government-conducted surveys rarely made public.

However, a leaked poll from a state-affiliated center suggested a mere 30 perecnt of voters may turn out for the upcoming elections, a figure that was swiftly retracted from publication. In the previous parliamentary elections in 2020, voter turnout was reported at a historic low of approximately 42.6 percent.

Prominent figures, including Nobel Peace Prize laureate Narges Mohammadi, have said openly they will boycott the elections, calling them superficial and predetermined. Similarly, Mostafa Tajzadeh, a former deputy interior minister, has voiced his refusal to vote, criticizing the supreme leader’s indifference to the country’s crises.

The elections also mark the first balloting since the widespread “Women, Life, Freedom” protests, ignited by the 2022 death of Mahsa Amini while in custody of the morality police. The protests led to a heavy-handed response from the government, including widespread arrests and crackdowns on demonstrators. At least 500 protesters were killed.