Iranians voted on Friday in a presidential election expected to consolidate hardline regime control over the Islamic Republic, but any Conservative victory risks being marred by low turnout.
It was quiet in the polling station that morning when a trickle of mostly conservative voters cast their votes. But more people showed up in cities and towns by the late afternoon, raising the possibility that none of the four candidates would get more than 50 percent of the vote, forcing a second round of voting.
The crucial polls are taking place while the Biden government tries to de-escalate tensions in the region and to revive the nuclear deal signed with Tehran with the world powers.
Ebrahim Raisi, a clergyman who heads the judiciary, leads the way after authorities banned leading reform candidates and Ali Larijani, a prominent Conservative who helped negotiate the 2015 nuclear deal.
Raisi has a healthy lead over his main rivals: Abdolnaser Hemmati, who was central bank governor before announcing his candidacy as the main candidate for reform, and Mohsen Rezaei, another senior conservative, according to local polls.
But even if one of the hardline candidates wins, a low turnout would undermine the victory and damage the regime’s claims that elections in a region where few votes are held give legitimacy to the population.
“I’m not going to choose another of my close relatives,” said Ali, a 36-year-old engineer and musician. âIf our voices could have changed anything, the regime would not have let us cast a vote. The whole vote is a show and the president’s part in the decision-making process is less than 5 percent. “
Surveys assume that voter turnout could drop below 50 percent. The gloomy mood against the backdrop of the economic crisis and the coronavirus pandemic is in stark contrast to the last elections in 2017, when more than 70 percent of the electorate cast their vote to give President Hassan Rouhani a second and final term in office with a landslide victory.
That poll, in which Raisi ranked second by far, was viewed as a referendum on the 2015 nuclear deal, which Rouhani promised to turn the economy inside out, attract foreign investment and step up engagement with the West.
However, the expectations raised by his victory were dashed after then-US President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew the US from the pact in 2018 and imposed massive sanctions on the republic, plunging the economy into a deep recession.
The crisis undermined the reformers who had supported Rouhani, a centrist, in hopes of bringing about change. But it encouraged hardliners who warned the US could not be trusted.
President Joe Biden has announced that the US will rejoin the deal and lift many sanctions if Iran fully complies with the deal again. Iran is expected to continue negotiations with the remaining signatories to the deal – France, Germany, Britain, China and Russia – if Raisi wins, with hardliners keen to lift the sanctions to ease pressure on the economy .
But after four years of turmoil and economic hardship, many Iranians have given up any hope that their voices will change for the better. Instead, they believe that the election will be used by the regime to confirm its theocratic rule.
âBefore the elections, all politicians appeal to the people to vote for Iran. The day after the elections, it is said that a high turnout is a victory for the Islamic Republic, âsaid Aziz, a 68-year-old manager of a private company. “I will never feed this propaganda again.”
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the top leader, warned Iranians on Wednesday that foreign pressure on the country could increase if voter turnout was low.
“We believe that military, political and economic means strengthen our power, but none is as important as the presence of the people” [in elections]âHe said. The top leader urged Iranians of all political inclinations to vote because the country needed them.
A low turnout, a rare act of civil disobedience by voters, is likely to favor Raisi, analysts say, as he has a core population of conservative voters who are expected to cast their votes.
Hosna, a 30-year-old photographer, said Raisi is the “most honest candidate preferred by the supreme leader,” adding, “He can clean up the mess we inherit from the Rouhani government. It is our religious duty to vote as the Supreme Leader said. “
But many people assume that hardliners in centers of power such as the elite Revolutionary Guards, the judiciary and the Khamenei office have already decided who will be the next president.
The best hope for Hemmati, the only reformist candidate, is that no candidate will get 50 percent of the vote and thus force a runoff.
His chances have been hampered by divisions among prominent reformers over whether it is worth voting at all. Some have used social media to urge people to vote using the hashtag “turn the tables”. But other reformists think it is unfair competition and think there is no point.
Many voters agree. “Enough is enough. I will never vote again,” said Mehran, a 52-year-old teacher. “Reformists have repeatedly betrayed us by saying that reforms can be done through the ballot box. Nothing will ever change.”