TEHRAN: Iranians voted on Friday in a presidential election in which ultraconservative cleric Ebrahim Raisi is seen as all but certain to coast to victory after all serious rivals were barred from running.
After a lacklustre campaign, low turnout was expected in a country exhausted by a punishing regime of US economic sanctions that has dashed the hopes of many for a brighter future.
The supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, cast the first vote in Tehran and then urged Iran’s nearly 60 million eligible voters to follow suit before the scheduled close of polls at midnight.
“The sooner you perform this task and duty, the better,” said the 81-year-old, stressing that voting “serves to build the future” of the Iranian people.
Just over 12 hours into voting, nationwide turnout had reached 37 percent, as overseas Iranians also cast their ballots in Iraq, Kuwait, Lebanon and elsewhere.
Pictures of often flag-waving voters in Iran dominated state TV coverage, but away from the polling stations some voiced anger at what they saw as a stage-managed election.
“Whether I vote or not, someone has already been elected,” scoffed Tehran shopkeeper Saeed Zareie, referring to pre-election vetting that barred all but seven of the more than 600 hopefuls. “They organise the elections for the media.”
Enthusiasm has been dampened further by the economic malaise of spiralling inflation and job losses, deepened by the Covid-19 pandemic.
“I’m not a politician, I don’t know anything about politics,” said Tehran car mechanic Nasrollah. “All families are now facing economic problems. How can we vote for these people who did this to us? It’s not right.” Iranian opposition groups abroad and some dissidents at home have urged a boycott of the vote they see as an engineered victory for Raisi, the 60-year-old head of the judiciary, to cement ultraconservative control.
But many queued to vote at schools, mosques and community centres.
One conservative mother wearing the full-body black chador came with her two young sons dressed in the camouflage uniform of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
Many said they supported Raisi, who has promised an anti-corruption drive, help for the poor, and millions of flats for low-income families.
A nurse named Sahebiyan said she backed Raisi due to his anti-graft credentials and hopes he would “move the country forward... and save the people from economic, cultural and social deprivation”.
Ultimate political power in Iran, since its 1979 revolution toppled the US-backed monarchy, rests with the supreme leader.
But the president, as the state bureaucracy’s top official, also wields significant influence in fields from industrial policy to foreign affairs.
Results are expected on Saturday afternoon. If no clear winner emerges, a runoff will be held next Friday.
Election placards are relatively sparse in Tehran, dominated by those showing Raisi, in his trademark black turban and clerical robe. He has been named in Iranian media as a possible successor to Khamenei.
The election winner will take over in August from President Hassan Rouhani, a moderate who has served the maximum two consecutive four-year-terms allowed under the constitution.
After casting his vote, Rouhani said that “elections are important no matter what” but acknowledged he would have liked to see “more people present” at polling stations.
Rouhani’s landmark achievement was the 2015 deal with world powers under which Iran agreed to limit its nuclear programme in return for sanctions relief.
Published in Dawn, June 19th, 2021