Iran votes to elect a president

As voting took place in Iran's presidential election on Friday, early estimates from election officials showed that only about 40% of eligible voters appeared to have voted. The low turnout was a potential blow to ruling clerics, who have made voter participation an indicator of their legitimacy and hoped to achieve a 50% turnout, compared to 70% in past presidential elections.

Hafez Hakami, campaign manager of the sole reformist candidate, Dr Masoud Pezeshkians, confirmed in a telephone interview after polls closed that voter turnout had been lower than expected.

“We really expected a turnout of more than 50 percent,” he said, “but unfortunately the social atmosphere for the vote was still heavy, it was not possible to convince people to show up at the polls.”

After enduring years of economic struggle and severe restrictions on personal and social freedoms, many Iranians say they are tired of empty promises made by politicians who are unwilling or unable to keep them. For some voters, refusing to vote was the only way to reject the government.

“The rift between the government and its people is serious,” said Omid Memarian, a human rights activist and senior analyst at DAWN, a Washington think tank. “From university students to women, political prisoners and those who lost loved ones during the nationwide protests of 2022, there was a consensus that Iran needs much bigger changes than those proposed by the regime.

“People are tired,” he added, “of choosing between bad, worse and worse still.”

In the capital, Tehran, reports emerged of some deserted polling stations. “The polling station where I voted today was empty,” said one woman, Mahdieh, 41, who gave only her first name for fear of the authorities. “I voted, without the hijab,” she added, referring to rules requiring women to wear a head covering in Iran.

But in the central and southern parts of the capital, where the government has more voters, voters remained in line as voting hours were extended until midnight.

Milad, 22, from Karaj, a town outside the capital, said he had changed his mind about not voting and intended to vote for Dr Masoud.

“Most Iranians are against radicalization and extremism,” he said. “Since we now have a candidate who represents a different path, I want to give him a chance.”

Voting to choose a successor to President Ebrahim Raisi, who died in a helicopter crash in May, comes at a dangerous time for the country. The incoming president will face a cascade of challenges, including discontent and divisions at home, an ailing economy and a volatile region that has brought Iran to the brink of war twice this year.

The final result may not be known until tomorrow, but analysts predict it will be inconclusive, as none of the three leading candidates will get the 50 percent needed to avoid a runoff.

Pre-election polls by Iranian state television showed the vote evenly split between the two conservative candidates, Mohammad Baqer Ghalibaf and Saeed Jalili, both around 16 percent. The reformist candidate, Dr. Pezeshkian, had around 23 percent. If that holds, analysts say, a runoff between the reformist and the conservative leaders would be held on July 5.

This result could have been avoided if one of the conservatives had withdrawn. But in a bitter public feud, neither Ghalibaf, a former commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps who is now speaker of parliament, nor Jalili, a hardliner on both domestic and foreign policy, have budged. Of the two, Ghalibaf is considered the more pragmatic.

In the latest poll, Pezeshkian received the most support of all candidates, but is still far below the 50% needed to avoid a runoff. Speaking to reporters after voting in Rey, just south-east of Tehran, Dr Pezeshkian said: “I came for the good of Iran. I have come to address disadvantaged areas and to listen to the voices of those who have not obtained their rights,” according to the state news agency IRNA.

Also running is Mostafa Pourmohammadi, a cleric with a history of high-level intelligence roles, but his candidacy has not received much public attention and polls suggest he is likely to win less than 1 percent of the vote. Mr. Pourmohammadi warned during his campaign that the Islamic Republic had lost its people and that voter turnout would be a major challenge.

Polls opened at 8am local time on Friday and are expected to continue late into the night to encourage higher turnout.

In the lead-up to the election, Iran's rulers, from Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to top commanders of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, had called the vote an act of defiance against Iran's enemies and a validation of the Islamic Republic's rule.

Casting his vote as polls opened on Friday morning, Mr Khamenei urged Iranians to vote for the good of the country, regardless of who they supported, describing it as a matter of civic duty that would bring the country “dignity and credit” in the eyes of the world.

“This is a big political test for the nation, and I know some people are suspicious and haven't decided what to do,” he said. “But I can tell them it's important, it has a lot of benefits, so why not?”

But his pleas have apparently fallen on deaf ears. Iranian elections are tightly controlled, with a committee of appointed clerics and jurists carefully vetting all candidates and extensive government efforts to intimidate opposition voices in the media. And virtually all major state decisions in Iran are made by Mr. Khamenei, particularly in foreign and nuclear policy.

As a result, many Iranians appear to have continued the boycott that began with the last major election, either in protest or because they do not believe meaningful change can come through the ballot box.

Four young women studying psychology at Tehran University who were buying makeup at the Tajrish Bazaar in northern Iran on Wednesday gave a glimpse of this discontent. Although they described themselves as shocked by conditions in Iran, they said they had no intention of voting.

“We can’t do anything about the situation; we have no hope but ourselves,” said Sohgand, 19, who asked not to be identified further for fear of the authorities. “But we want to stay in Iran to make the situation better for our children.”

He was wearing well-cut black trousers and a fitted jacket, and had left his brown hair uncovered. But she also had a scarf around her shoulders in case an official told her to wear it. As for the rules requiring women to wear the hijab, she added simply: “We hate it.”

On Friday, Tehran's Hosseinieh Ershad religious institute, with its dome and mosaic, was packed at midday with people queuing to vote.

Among them was Neema Saberi, 30, who said she supported the reformist Pezeshkian. “We believe that everyone will be united by Mr. Pezeshkian,” she said. “He is a logical person, he is not an extremist and he respects people from all walks of life.”

Saberi, along with other members of the institute, stressed that they appreciated Pezeshkian's commitment to fighting corruption and having “better relations with the world,” a euphemism often used to ease tensions with the West in order to obtain the lifting of sanctions.

The televised debates, in which the candidates were surprisingly candid in criticizing the status quo, demonstrated that the economy, plagued by U.S. sanctions as well as corruption and mismanagement, is considered a top priority for voters and candidates, analysts said.

According to analysts, it is not possible to resolve the economic situation without addressing foreign policy, including the stalemate with the United States over Iran's nuclear program and concerns about Iran's military involvement in the region through its network of militant groups to power of attorney.

“Rather than radical change, the election could produce smaller, yet significant, changes,” said Vali Nasr, a professor of international affairs and Middle East studies at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Washington. “Voices at the helm who want a different direction could push the Islamic Republic to move away from some of its positions.”

While apathy remains high in most urban areas, voters in provinces with significant ethnic Azeri Turks and Kurds were expected to turn out in greater numbers for Dr. Pezeshkian. He is an Azeri Turk himself and served as a member of parliament for the city of Tabriz, a major economic hub in the northwestern province of East Azerbaijan. Dr. Pezeshkian gave campaign speeches in his native Turkish and Kurdish.

At a rally in Tabriz on Wednesday, the doctor received a folk-hero welcome, with crowds filling a stadium and singing a Turkish nationalist song, according to videos and news reports. Ethnic and religious minorities are rarely represented in high office in Iran, so the candidacy of one of them for president has generated regional interest and enthusiasm, Azerbaijani activists say.

Leily Nikounazar contributed reporting from Tehran.

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