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Iran Holds Vote to Pick a President

As voting proceeded in Iran’s presidential election on Friday, early estimates from campaign officials showed that only about 40 percent of eligible voters appeared to be casting ballots. The low turnout was a potential blow to the ruling clerics, who made voter participation a marker of their legitimacy and had hoped to achieve 50 percent turnout, compared with 70 percent in past presidential elections.

Hafez Hakami, a campaign manager for the lone reformist candidate, Dr. Masoud Pezeshkians, confirmed in a telephone interview after the polls closed that turnout was below expectations.

“We were really expecting participation of over 50 percent,” he said, “but unfortunately the social mood for voting was still heavy, people could not be convinced to show up at the ballot box.”

Having endured years of economic struggle and sharp restrictions on personal and social freedoms, many Iranians say they have grown tired of empty promises made by politicians who are unwilling or unable to deliver them. For some voters, the refusal to cast a ballot was the only way of rejecting the government.

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

“People are sick,” he added, “of choosing between the bad, the worse and the worst.”

In the capital, Tehran, reports emerged of some polling places being deserted. “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 central and southern parts of the capital, where the government has more constituents, voters stood in line as voting hours were extended to midnight.

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

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

The balloting to choose a successor to President Ebrahim Raisi, who died in a helicopter crash in May, comes at a perilous 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 taken Iran to the brink of war twice this year.

The final outcome might not be known until tomorrow, but analysts predicted it would be inconclusive, with none of the three main candidates gaining the 50 percent needed to avoid a runoff.

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

That outcome could have been avoided if one of the conservatives had withdrawn. But in a bitter public feud, neither Mr. Ghalibaf, a former commander in the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps who is now the speaker of Parliament, nor Mr. Jalili, a hard-liner on both domestic and foreign policy, budged. Of the two, Mr. Ghalibaf is seen as more pragmatic.

In the latest polling, Mr. Pezeshkian received the most support of any candidate, but still far short of the 50 percent needed to avoid a runoff. Speaking to reporters after casting his ballot in Rey, just southeast of Tehran, Dr. Pezeshkian said, “I came for the sake of Iran. I came to address the deprived areas and to hear the voices of those who did not get their rights,” according to the state-run IRNA news agency.

Also running is Mostafa Pourmohammadi, a cleric with past senior roles in intelligence, but his candidacy has hardly registered with the public and polls suggest he will likely win less than 1 percent of the vote. Mr. Pourmohammadi had warned throughout his campaign that the Islamic Republic had lost the people and voter turnout would be a big challenge.

The polls opened at 8 a.m. Friday local time, and were expected to extend well into the night to encourage greater turnout.

In the prelude to the election, Iran’s rulers, from the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to senior commanders of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, had characterized voting as an act of defiance against Iran’s enemies and a validation of the Islamic Republic’s rule.

Casting his vote as the polls opened Friday morning, Mr. Khamenei urged Iranians to vote for the sake of the country, regardless of whom they supported, portraying 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 exam 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 is important, it has many benefits, so why not?”

But his pleas seemingly fell on deaf ears. Iranian elections are tightly controlled, with a committee of appointed clerics and jurists who vet all the candidates and extensive government efforts to intimidate opposition voices in the news media. And virtually all the 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 a boycott that began with the last major election, either as a protest or because they do not believe that 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 flavor of that discontent. Although they described themselves as upset about conditions in Iran, they said they were not planning to vote.

“We can’t do anything about the situation; we don’t have any hope except in ourselves,” said Sohgand, 19, who asked not to be further identified for fear of the authorities. “But we want to stay in Iran to make it better for our children.”

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

On Friday, the domed and mosaic-covered Hosseinieh Ershad, a religious institute in Tehran, was crowded at midday with people lining up to cast their ballots.

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

Mr. Saberi, along with others at the institute, stressed that they appreciated Mr. Pezeshkian’s commitment to cracking down on corruption and having “better relations with the world,” which is an often-used euphemism for easing tensions with the West in order to get sanctions lifted.

Televised debates, in which the candidates were surprisingly candid in slamming the status quo, showed that the economy, plagued by American sanctions as well as corruption and mismanagement, ranked as a top priority for voters and candidates, analysts said.

There is no fixing the economy without addressing foreign policy, analysts say, including the standoff with the United States over Iran’s nuclear program and concerns about Iran’s military engagement in the region through its network of militant proxy groups.

“Rather than radical change, the elections could produce smaller, albeit significant, shifts,” 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 nudge the Islamic Republic to back away from some of its positions.”

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

At a rally in Tabriz on Wednesday, the doctor received a folk hero’s welcome, with crowds packing a stadium and singing a Turkish nationalist song, according to videos and news reports. Ethnic and religious minorities are seldom represented in high office in Iran, so the candidacy of one for the presidency has generated interest and enthusiasm regionally, Azeri activists say.

Leily Nikounazar contributed reporting from Tehran.

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Nathan is an experienced journalist. He's covered a broad spectrum of topics, including politics, culture, and human interest stories, always aiming to engage and inform his audience. Nathan has a degree in Journalism and upholds the highest standards of integrity and accuracy in his work.

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