Iran extends voting for a third time in election amid low voter turnout fears

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Iranians are voting on Friday in a parliamentary election unlikely to change the Islamic Republic’s troubled relations with the United States, after thousands of candidates were barred from the field in favor of hardliners.

The disqualification of some 9,000 potential candidates, most of them reformists and moderates, raised the possibility of lower-than-usual turnout.

State television reported that polling started at 0430 GMT. Voting is scheduled to last for 10 hours but it has been extended for two extra hours by electoral authorities “based on reports received from constituencies across the country pointing to the presence of people,” according to state television. There are some 58 million Iranians eligible to vote for the country’s 290-seat parliament.

Polling stations have in the past stayed open late into the night to give people more time to cast their vote. Initial results are expected to be announced on Saturday. Presidential elections are expected to take place in 2021.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei casted his vote and said that voting in the parliamentary election is a religious duty, according to state media.

Iran’s Guardian Council slammed US sanctions on five Iranian officials in charge of vetting candidates for its parliamentary election on Friday, saying it shows Washington’s disdain for democracy.

“America’s regime has shown through illegal sanctions... on members of the Guardian Council that it has nothing to do with democracy,” the Council’s spokesman Abbas Ali Kadkhodaee, who was among those hit with sanctions, wrote on Twitter.

“We are now even more determined to safeguard the people’s vote,” he added.

The spokesman added that he is honored to be blacklisted by the US, according to state TV.

The parliament in Iran does not have power to dictate major policies, but it does debate the annual budget and the possible impeachment of ministers. Power in Iran ultimately rests with Khamenei, who has final say on all key matters.

Tensions with the United States could strengthen hard-liners by reinforcing long-held distrust of the West. The crisis with Washington spiked after a US airstrike in January killed Iran’s top general, Qassem Soleimani. The strike led to a tense confrontation in which Iranian forces accidentally shot down a Ukrainian passenger plane after it took off from Tehran, killing all 176 people on board. Most of those killed were Iranian.

The shoot-down, and attempts by officials to initially conceal the cause of the crash sparked public anger and protests in Iran.

The election is being held at a time of growing economic hardship. Iranians have seen the price of basic goods skyrocket, inflation and unemployment rise, and the local currency plummet since President Donald Trump withdrew the US from Iran’s nuclear agreement with world powers and imposed sanctions.

The economic woes faced by ordinary Iranians fueled anti-government protests in November. International human rights groups say at least 300 people were killed in the protests.

Also looming over the election is the threat of the new coronavirus, which has been confirmed in five people in Iran this week, including two elderly citizens who died in the city of Qom.

A parliament stacked with hard-liners could favor expanding the budget for the Revolutionary Guard Corps, which has been sanctioned by the US. It could also tilt public policy debates toward hard-liners who are opposed to engagement with the US.

Current parliament speaker Ali Larijani decided to step down after 11 years and is not running for reelection. Mohammad Baqher Qalibaf, the former mayor of Tehran who is also the former head of the Revolutionary Guard air force, is seen as one of the front-runners to succeed Larijani.

The current parliament, elected in 2016, had more than 100 reformists and moderates, with the rest of the chamber split between independents and hard-liners. Some 90 current lawmakers were barred from running in Friday’s election.

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