(CNSNews.com) – Iran recorded its lowest election turnout since the 1979 revolution in Friday’s legislative election, but supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on Sunday congratulated Iranians for having frustrated “enemy” plots – including, he said, using the “pretext” of the coronavirus outbreak to discourage people from voting.
Authorities reported a turnout of below 43 percent of eligible voters nationwide, and just 25.4 percent in Tehran – a clear indication that boycott calls were heeded by many.
In prior legislative elections, voter turnout has ranged from a low of 52.1 percent in 1980, to a high of 71.1 percent in 1996. Turnout in 2016 was almost 62 percent.
Despite the low number of voters, Khamenei was full of praise for the nation, calling the turnout stunning.
Addressing a religious gathering on Sunday, he said the enemies of Iran had waged a propaganda campaign designed to spoil the election, even resorting to exaggerating the coronavirus threat.
“This negative propaganda began a few months ago and increased as the elections were approaching,” he said. “In the last two days, the pretext of an illness and virus was used, and their media did not miss the slightest opportunity to discourage people from voting.”
Iran reported its first two confirmed cases of the China-originated COVID-19 virus last Wednesday – two days before the election. It reported two deaths the same day.
Within just four days the number had climbed to 43 confirmed cases and eight deaths – the highest number of COVID-19 deaths in any country outside mainland China.
‘Defend, attack and counter-attack’
Khamenei said Iran’s enemies were not content with targeting the country’s economy and culture, or its people’s religious and revolutionary beliefs.
“They are even opposed to the participation of the Iranian people in the elections, because they do not want the phenomenon of the people’s participation in the name of religion and in the service of the revolution to be proven to be a reality,” he said.
“In the face of the efforts of thousands of the enemy in opposition to various matters in Iran, the Iranian nation should have millions ready to defend, attack and counter-attack in propaganda- related matters and in all possible areas in favor of the nation.”
As has become customary in Iranian legislative and presidential elections, the Guardian Council, a small body appointed by Khamenei, disqualified more than 7,000 candidates from running, just under half the number that applied to do so.
They included 90 sitting lawmakers, mostly viewed as reformists. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that “many” of those barred from taking part were Iranians who question the regime policies.
In response to “the manipulation of elections to favor the regime’s malign agenda” the U.S. Treasury Department designated five members of the Guardian Council for sanctions.
Official election results in the capital were striking: All 30 seats in the Tehran constituency went to “principalists,” Iran’s term for those opposed to moderation and reform. By contrast, voters in 2016 handed all 30 Tehran seats to a “reformist” coalition.
The victorious “principalist” bloc is led by former Tehran mayor, national police chief, and commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) air force, Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf.
Qalibaf has run unsuccessfully for president several times, coming third in 2005 and second to President Hassan Rouhani in 2013. He ran again in 2017 but dropped out at the eleventh hour in favor of a controversial hardline candidate.
Hardliners dominated elections elsewhere too, and according to the Mehr news agency they will hold a sizeable majority in the 290-seat majlis (parliament).
The overall result and his strong showing means Qalibaf is expected to become the next majlis speaker.
It was the first election to be held since a wave of protests began late last year, initially focused on economic discontent and a fuel price hike but soon characterized by anti-regime sentiment. As many as 1,500 people were killed in the ensuing crackdown, with thousands more injured and arrested.
It was also the first election, legislative, local or presidential, since President Trump in May 2018 withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal. The exit paved the way for a restoration of U.S. sanctions, and what the administration calls a “maximum pressure” policy, aimed at changing the regime’s behavior.
The exiled National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) hailed the poor turnout, portraying it as a strong rebuke for regime leaders who in the run-up to the election made much of the need for a strong response from voters.
The group noted that Khamenei, Rouhani, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, the outgoing majlis speaker, IRGC commanders, and Friday prayer leaders had repeatedly used terms like “religious duty,” “divine test,” “public jihad,” and “another strong slap to America,” to underline the importance of a high turnout.