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Iran held its first parliamentary elections since the 2022 protests

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Iran held elections Friday as candidates vied to fill the 290 seats in parliament. The second ballot was held for Iran's Assembly of Experts. That's a powerful clerical body that's charged with selecting the country's supreme leader. NPR's Peter Kenyon joins us from Istanbul. Peter, thanks so much for being with us.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Hi, Scott.

SIMON: How'd the voting go?

KENYON: Well, the official statement is everything went fine, no problems. Turnout, however, seems quite low. Iran has long argued that its regular staging of elections is itself a sign that it is, in fact, a democracy, an argument long dismissed by Western officials and other critics. Here's how Iran's English-language press TV channel framed the election before polls opened.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Top Iranian officials say a huge turnout in the elections will give the country great advantages in the international arena. The leader of Iran's Islamic Revolution has also emphasized that people's participation in the voting will make friends of the nation happy and will disappoint the ill-wishers.

KENYON: But voters showed no inclination to make the government happy. Calls to boycott the vote - they began to surface well before Election Day, and many Iranians apparently decided to heed those calls, and the result's being described as possibly a record-low turnout. We're waiting for the final figures. And this continues a trend of declining voter participation in the past few years, even as recently as 2017. President Hassan Rouhani was on the ballot then. Some 70% of eligible voters reportedly turned out. That's how most Iranian elections used to be staged. High turnout was normal. Not so much these days. Rouhani, by the way, was among those candidates blocked from running for the Assembly of Experts this time.

SIMON: Peter, what's being said about the low turnout?

KENYON: Well, critics, of course, say it's a public repudiation of the cleric-led government. And this vote was held after a rocky period. This was the first election since the death in 2022 of a young Kurdish Iranian woman, 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, in the custody of Iran's morality police. She'd been picked up for allegedly wearing her Islamic headscarf improperly. Her death sparked massive anti-government protests in what was deemed the biggest public challenge to the government since the Islamic Revolution back in 1979. Now, this time, ahead of this election, top officials, including the supreme leader, including the president, tried to exhort the electorate to turn out in large numbers, apparently with little effect. Now, the parliament - really not that big a deal. It's not a heavyweight player in politics in Iran. But the vote is a sign that the country's leaders want to do what it takes to keep the country on a hard-line conservative course.

SIMON: And how is that conservative course likely to play out in the days ahead?

KENYON: Well, it will likely maintain Iran's general hostility to the West. That was probably never in doubt. But it could also have an impact on future leadership of the Islamic Republic. And that is coming back to this Assembly of Experts, one of those uniquely Iranian bodies. Ayatollah Khamenei's term as supreme leader runs until 2032, at which point he will be 92 years old. So it's entirely possible that these clerics being elected to the assembly now - they will be the ones who select Khamenei's successor, Iran's next supreme leader.

SIMON: NPR's Peter Kenyon in Istanbul, thanks so much for being with us.

KENYON: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
Peter Kenyon is NPR's international correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey.