Voters in Iran will vote on Friday to elect a new president. But voter apathy is high as the Middle East country sees a surge in coronavirus and an economy ravaged by US sanctions.
The incumbent President Hassan Rouhani has served a maximum of two terms in office.
Several candidates withdrew from the race or were disqualified in the run-up to the vote on Friday. All of the remaining candidates were approved and reviewed by the Iranian Guardian Council, the constitutional watchdog charged with admitting candidates.
On Wednesday, two hardline candidates withdrew from the race and supported another hardliner – Ebrahim Raisi, the head of the Iranian judiciary. Former central bank governor Abdolnasser Hemmati, the other remaining politician in the running, is a reformist candidate.
Political analysts say the likely winner will be 60-year-old Raisi, who is backed by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Rasi’s previous involvement in human rights abuses would make him a problematic president for the West, according to Iran analyst Behnam Ben Taleblu of the Washington-based Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.
“He is unfortunately best known for his despicable oversight of a so-called death commission in the late 1980s that carried out the Ayatollah Khomeini murder edict that killed more than 5,000 political prisoners in Tehran,” said Taleblu.
After Khamenei cast the first vote in Tehran, Khamenei encouraged the country’s 59 million eligible voters to vote and warned Iranians of a foreign conspiracy to undermine the vote.
But voters did not seem to heed Khamenei’s call to vote. Hours after polling stations opened at 7 a.m. local time, turnout appeared to be far lower than in the last presidential election in 2017, according to the Associated Press.
Raisi cast his vote in a mosque in southern Tehran. Hemmati also voted in Tehran.
Iran was rocked by a series of events that shaped the electoral landscape. The targeted killing of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani in January 2020 by a US drone attack sparked widespread public anger. Days later, Iranian forces accidentally shot down a Ukrainian passenger plane, killing all 176 people on board. The incident sparked anti-government protests in several cities.
â€œSo there was a cycle of interconnected events that dampened the mood of the population, and in November 2019 protests against rising oil prices were brutally suppressed. So ordinary Iranians are not particularly inclined to vote, â€said Sanam Vakil, deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa program at Chatham House in London, in an interview with VOA.
Iran has increased its nuclear enrichment significantly since the United States exited the 2015 agreement known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA. It is believed that Iran is only a few months away from producing enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon. The US is considering re-joining the 2015 nuclear deal, but only if Iran stops enrichment. Iran says the US must suspend sanctions first. Talks in Vienna are ongoing.
â€œLifting the sanctions would be a huge blessing that could have a trickle-down effect that would be of enormous importance to ordinary people. Still, I think Iranians are less invested in the Iranian nuclear deal today and have less confidence in the United States or European countries, â€said Vakil.