DUBAI, United Arab Emirates – As Iranian state television showed people streaming their votes on Friday and presenters congratulated them for coming to vote, very different scenes unfolded on the streets of Tehran, where many polling stations seemed relatively empty.
Amid mounting anger and apathy over a presidential vote in favor of Ebrahim Raisi, the die-hard judicial leader cultivated by Iran’s supreme leader, the electoral atmosphere was markedly subdued.
In previous elections, long lines have spun out of the polling stations. Cars and minibuses zigzagged through the chaotic streets of the capital, shouting campaign slogans. Banners too big to miss defended the various candidates and covered the buildings.
But this year the streets were quiet, traffic was light, and the typical zeal was absent even from state television, which only offered tight shots of people putting ballots in ballot boxes. Few, if any, other voters could be seen in the background.
“It’s unnecessary,” said Ali Hosseini, a 36-year-old unemployed person living in southern Tehran, of the exercise of the vote. “Anyone who wins the election after a while says that he cannot solve the problem of the economy because of the intervention of influential people. He then forgets his promises and we, the poor, are again disappointed. “
Crowds of journalists filled Tehran’s turquoise-domed Hosseinieh Ershad Institute, photographing government officials and ordinary Iranians voting. Images of journalists pushing and jostling in the polling station were relayed by local media and international broadcasters.
But this scene was at odds with what people saw at 16 different polling stations across Tehran, where the lines were short and no more than eight voters at a time could be seen voting. Some polling stations remained virtually deserted throughout the day – a stark contrast to the nearby ice cream parlors and restaurants. Of two dozen voters polled at different stations, more than half said they voted for Raisi. Apathetic election officials would listen to state radio, look at their phones, or chat calmly.
While government participation figures were not expected until Saturday, the state-linked Iranian student survey agency earlier this week estimated a turnout of just over 40%, which would be the most low since the Islamic revolution of 1979.
Signs of anxiety over turnout began to emerge at the highest levels of Iranian leaders days before the polls opened. Fearing a boycott that could undermine the credibility of the theocratic system, officials from all walks of life – from powerful die-hard Revolutionary Guards to relatively moderate incumbent President Hassan Rouhani – have urged people to vote. In an unprecedented televised speech on the last day of the campaign, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei sternly warned against “foreign plots” to keep voters at home and described participation as a means of challenge the West in a context of heightened tensions.
And yet, despite official warnings and reprimands from the media, many Iranians struggled to see the point in voting. The country’s clerical oversight body allowed only Raisi and a few other low-profile candidates, mostly hardliners, on the ballot. The main moderate candidate, former Central Bank chief Abdolnasser Hemmati, lacks the base of support needed to rally the masses. All of their campaigns focused on similar generalities: helping the unemployed, improving the economy, boosting Iran’s self-sufficiency.
“None of the candidates are trustworthy,” said Nasrin, a 31-year-old accountant from central Tehran who declined to give her last name for fear of reprisal.
In the last election in 2017, she voted for Rouhani, whose administration struck the 2015 Tehran nuclear deal with world powers, giving Iran sanctions relief in exchange for restrictions on its nuclear program. But three years later, then-US President Donald Trump withdrew America from the deal and handed down crushing sanctions, triggering the collapse of the Iranian riyal and destroying Rouhani’s forecast of a boom. economic.
“I have heard similar promises for a better life and more roles for women in previous elections, but no change has taken place on the ground,” Nasrin said.
Another passer-by in a middle-class neighborhood in Tehran, Rojin Ahmadi, 23, offered an equally grim view of the candidates.
“None of them dared to come up with a plan to show that they would bring the country back to normal,” she said, adding that she was not voting.
Public frustration with the status quo has grown under Iran’s growing crises: global isolation, unprecedented US sanctions and the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed more than 82,600 Iranians – the highest death toll in the country. Middle East. But faith in the power to vote to change anything had also suffered greatly.
The elimination of Rouhani’s allies and prominent reformists surprised even senior officials. Analysts describe this election as the least competitive in the history of the Islamic Republic. Demoralized critics have launched calls for a boycott on social media. Former outright populist president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, prevented from running for a second time, seized popular anger by reiterating his decision to stay home for the vote. Rouhani, whose term is limited, expressed regret over the disqualifications of Reformers while voting, suggesting that low turnout was inevitable.
“I wish we didn’t have so many problems and that we saw more participation today,” he lamented.
As the conflict over whether to vote unfolded, Raisi’s supporters didn’t need much conviction. The cleric appeals to some impoverished Iranians for his anti-corruption campaign and his harsh criticism of the West. The US Treasury Department sanctioned him in 2019 for his involvement in the mass execution of political prisoners in 1988, at the end of the Iran-Iraq war, and his stint at the head of internationally criticized Iranian justice.
“He’s a member of the clergy,” said Niloufar Mohammadi, a 19-year-old law student, explaining why she voted for Raisi. “Influential people listen to him.