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Parliamentary Elections In Iran Are Dominated By Conservative Candidates


Iranians are going to the polls to vote for a new parliament today after months that have seen open conflict with the U.S., open protests on the streets and ongoing economic pressure. It looks like political hard-liners have the upper hand. Many moderate candidates - the kind that might support the Iranian president's effort for better relations with the West - were disqualified.

We're joined now by NPR's Peter Kenyon, who just arrived in Tehran. Peter, you haven't been there long, but what are you seeing?

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Well, the machinery of legislative elections is up and running, no question, but I have yet to see anything like serious interest in this vote among the people. In 2016, there was a 62% turnout, and this year expected to be less than that. Of course, we're going to have to wait for the official turnout figures to make a judgment, but it looks like a lower turnout this time.

MARTIN: Have you gotten a chance to talk to anyone? What are they telling you?

KENYON: I have. It's been a bit interesting, actually. Some of those who did vote had their reasons. I met 76-year-old Benas Fattah Lazaday (ph). She said she wants the next parliament to be as anti-American as possible. After the assassination of General Qassem Soleimani, anti-Washington feelings are running even higher than usual.

But outside of Tehran Cafe, I met several young men who said they had no interest in voting at all. Here's how one of them put it.

QASIM: Hello. My name is Qasim (ph), and I am 25 years old.

KENYON: In today's election day, are you planning to vote?

QASIM: Unfortunately not - yeah.

KENYON: Why not?

QASIM: Why not? Because I don't see any future in this election. So because of that, I won't go.

KENYON: Now, Qasim and others I spoke with said they just don't see any real difference between the candidates. They see them all, to one degree or another, falling in line behind higher-up powers, though nobody wanted to be too specific about who exactly they meant by that.

MARTIN: So I mentioned this at the top, but why are people saying this looks like hard-liners are consolidating power?

KENYON: Well, it was basically set up that way. Here in Iran, critics say elections are virtually fixed before the polls open and not afterwards in the counting, and that's by limiting who can run. The elite Guardian Council vets candidates and reportedly this time threw out several thousand potential reformist and moderate candidates, which virtually ensures that the new parliament will have a larger conservative and hard-line membership. That prompted the Trump administration to levy sanctions on the Guardian Council Thursday.

Now, but this weeding out on ideological terms is quite frustrating for Iranian voters here in the capital, especially. They've long wanted parliament to follow more moderate policies, both at home and abroad.

MARTIN: That difference between hard-liners and moderates - that would obviously affect Iran's relationship with the United States. What are the other issues where that would come into play?

KENYON: Well, a lot of the flashpoints between reformers and hard-liners involve opening up Iranian society, allowing more freedom of expression, even dissent. Instead, as we saw in November, there was a violent crackdown against demonstrators who were protesting sharp price hikes in essential goods. And beyond that, there are foreign policy disputes over things like relations with Iran's Persian Gulf neighbors, especially longtime rival Saudi Arabia.

MARTIN: We should also just note the government there says two elderly people have died from the coronavirus. What can you tell us there?

KENYON: Well, this is the topic on everybody's mind this morning. There are big worries about this virus spreading. What will the government be doing about it? And as far as this vote is concerned, will fears of catching the virus depress turnout even further today if people just decide to stay home for health reasons?

MARTIN: NPR's Peter Kenyon in Tehran. Thank you, Peter.

KENYON: Thanks, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.