Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei cast the first vote in Iran, marking the opening of the country’s presidential election.
“Every vote counts… come vote and choose your president… it’s important for the future of your country,” Khamenei said after voting. “Low turnout will increase pressure from enemies. “
The virtually unchallenged frontrunner is Judicial Chief Ebrahim Raisi, a close aide to Khamenei. He became the frontrunner after an election watchdog known as the Council of Guardians excluded almost all other serious contenders from the race. The move was widely criticized, even by Khamenei, who called some of the disqualifications “unfair”.
Raisi’s expected victory would come at a pivotal moment for Iran. The next government will face an economic crisis exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic, calls for constitutional reform and growing questions around succession plans for Khamenei, 81, who is the final arbiter of all cases Iranian. Tehran is also currently engaged in negotiations with the United States on how to revive the 2015 nuclear deal.
A largely conservative participation
Queues across Iran meandered outside polling stations, largely made up of conservative voters. Many carried posters of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani, who was killed in Baghdad last year on the orders of former President Donald Trump.
But many Iranians have also expressed dismay at what they see as a heavily designed election. Some people oppose what is seen as an attempt by Iranian religious leaders to further strengthen their power, despite public calls for reform.
“I will not vote. I don’t think it’s very effective for the situation in the country, ”said a 22-year-old man. “We may already know what’s going to happen. All Iranians who criticized the elections in interviews with CNN have asked not to be named for security reasons.
The young man was sitting on a bench in Tehran’s bustling Valiasr Square. Overlooking the stage, a huge billboard depicts people from different parts of Iranian society, their fingertips covered in purple ink to indicate that they have voted.
“For Iran, we stand in the queue to vote,” the poster reads. At street level, it’s a different story.
Most national polls show that the Iranian presidential election could see a turnout below 50% for the first time since the establishment of the Islamic Republic in 1979. Government fears over voter apathy seemed to prompt Khamenei to make a last-minute appeal to the electorate. Thursday, warning that a low turnout would play into Iran’s “enemies” and destabilize the country.
“The enemies seek to undermine the participation of the people in the elections to weaken Iran,” Khamenei said in a televised speech.
“If there is less participation and if the country is weakened, they can cause insecurity in the country … if we have less participation of the population, we will have more pressure exerted by our enemies … economic pressures”, added the leader. .
“The solution is to increase people’s participation and show the enemy that people are participating. “
Previously, Khamenei had warned that white votes would be considered a “sin”.
A non-competitive election
In the past few days, three candidates have dropped out of the race, including two Tories who are apparently trying to increase Raisi’s chances even further. Major reformist and centrist politicians were disqualified last month.
“I’m not going to vote because I don’t think there is a suitable person to choose as a candidate,” said a 32-year-old student.
“Maybe I would have voted if there had been different candidates,” said another young man.
“The government itself has already selected [the president]. It’s the truth, ”said a disgruntled middle-aged man. “We are in a bad situation. We must choose only the one they have chosen for us. ”
“And we know him. We know him, ”he added, referring to Raisi, who for decades played a leading role in the prosecution of political prisoners in Iran.
In 1988, Raisi was part of a four-person death committee that oversaw the execution of up to 5,000 political prisoners, many of whom were later buried in anonymous graves, according to rights groups.
Raisi has never commented on these allegations, but it is widely believed that he rarely leaves Iran for fear of retaliation or international justice for the executions.
Raisi’s only non-conservative electoral rival is Abdolnaser Hemmati, a former central bank governor who is running on a moderate platform. He is considered by some to be a dark horse candidate. Although he votes in single digits, he says his candidacy boosted the expected turnout.
“After I enter the election, I see that the percentage of those who wish to participate increases,” Hemmati said in an interview with CNN. “The message from the people is that they have no power and I come to say that I can be their power. ”
Meanwhile, at Raisi’s campaign headquarters in Tehran, a looping video showing the soft-spoken cleric conversing with young people was shown on a garage door. A handful of young conservatives commute in and out of the building.
Hossein Bahman Abadi, Raisi’s campaign manager, berates the Western world for “lying” about voter turnout.
“Who said people wouldn’t participate? People will participate, ”Abadi told CNN. “This is the slogan of the foreign media which suggests that people do not participate. “
But across Tehran, election posters are scarce, campaign centers are largely empty, and the mood is grim. On social media, activists are calling on people to stay home on Friday. A young man told us he was planning to play video games on election day.
“I don’t care about the elections. Who is supposed to take care of us? Rouhani… Khamenei? They move us from person to person like a basketball, ”said one woman. Her voice charged with emotion, she explained a litany of her economic woes, including her inability to provide necessary medication for her sick son.
“The worst thing that can happen to me because of my objections is that I get arrested and killed,” she said. “But it’s better than watching my son die of illness. ”