Iranians lose faith in chance of change through the ballot box

Iranians are voting in a presidential election on Friday that is predicted to strengthen the government’s hardliners’ control over the Islamic Republic, but any victory for the Conservatives could be jeopardized by the lowest turnout since the 1979 revolution.

The crucial polls take place as the Biden government seeks to ease tensions in the region and revive the nuclear deal Tehran has signed with world powers.

Ebrahim Raisi, a cleric who heads the judiciary, is the forerunner after the authorities banned the leading reform candidates and Ali Larijani, a prominent Conservative who helped negotiate the nuclear power in 2015, participates .

Raisi has a healthy lead over its biggest rivals: Abdolnaser Hemmati, who was central bank governor before announcing his candidacy as the main reform candidate, and Mohsen Rezaei, another senior Conservative, according to local polls.

But even if one of the constipated candidates wins, a low turnout will undermine the victory and damage the regime’s claims that the election offers popular legitimacy, in a region where few votes are cast.

“I will not vote, and neither will my relatives,” said Ali, a 36-year-old engineer and musician. “If our votes could have changed something, the regime would not have let us vote. The whole vote is a show and the president’s share in the decision-making is less than 5 percent. ”

A hairdresser works in a barber shop in Tehran as the TV debate of the first presidential candidates is shown on TV in the background
A customer at a barber shop in Tehran gets her hair cut as the TV debate of the first presidential candidates is shown on TV in the background © Abedin Taherkenareh / EPA-EFE / Shutterstock

Polls predict that turnout could fall below 50 percent. The gloomy vote, against the backdrop of the economic crisis and the coronavirus pandemic, is in stark contrast to the last election in 2017 when more than 70 percent of voters voted to secure a second and final term for President Hassan Rouhani with ‘ a great victory.

That poll, in which Raisi is a distant second, is seen as a referendum on the 2015 nuclear deal, which promised Rouhani to turn the economy around, attract foreign investment and strengthen involvement in the West.

But expectations raised by his victory were shattered after then-US President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew the US from the 2018 treaty and imposed heavy sanctions on the republic, plunging the economy into a deep recession.

The crisis severely undermined reformers who backed Rouhani, a centrist, in hopes of securing change. But it encouraged hardliners who warned that the US could not be trusted.

President Joe Biden has said that the United States will step in again and lift many sanctions if Iran complies with the agreement in full. Iran is expected to continue negotiations with the remaining signatories to the agreement – France, Germany, the United Kingdom, China and Russia – if Raisi wins, with hardliners seeking sanctions to ease the pressure on the economy.

But after four years of turmoil and economic hardship, many Iranians have given up hope that their voices could change for the better. Instead, they believe the election is being used by the regime to assert its theocratic rule.

“Before the election, all politicians are calling for people to vote for Iran. The day after the election, they say a high turnout is a victory for the Islamic Republic, “said Aziz, a 68-year-old manager of a private company. “I’m not going to do that propaganda again.”

Iranians sit at a sidewalk cafe in northern Tehran
A sidewalk cafe in northern Tehran. Many Iranians assume that runners in power centers such as the judiciary and Khamenei’s office have already decided who the next president should be © Morteza Nikoubazl / AFP via Getty Images

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the top leader, warned Iranians on Wednesday that foreign pressure on the country could increase if the turnout is low.

‘It is true that we think that military, political and economic means may strengthen us, but no one is as important as the presence of people [in elections], “he said. The top leader encouraged Iranians of all political leanings to go to the polls because the country needs it.

Analysts believe the low election is likely to be a rare act of civic disobedience by voters, but Raisi has a core quarters of conservative voters who are expected to cast their ballots.

Hosna, a 30-year-old photographer, said Raisi was the “most honest candidate favored by the supreme leader” and added: “He can clean up the mess we inherit from the Rouhani government. It is our religious duty to vote as stated by the supreme leader. “

But many people assume that hardliners in power centers such as the elite Revolutionary Guards, the judiciary and Khamenei’s office have already decided who should become the next president.

The best hope for Hemmati, the only reformist candidate, is that no candidate gets 50 percent of the vote, forcing a runoff.

His chances were hampered by divisions among prominent reformers over the question of whether it was worth voting at all. Some have used social media to encourage people to cast their vote using the hashtag “turn the table”. But other reformers think it’s an unfair struggle and say it makes no sense.

Many voters agree. “Enough is enough. I will never vote again,” said Mehran, a 52-year-old teacher. “Reformers have repeatedly cheated us by saying that ballot reform is possible. Nothing will ever change.”

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