Iran's Islamic regime is using every tool to convince Iranians to vote tomorrow in parliamentary elections, in what its top leader predicts will "smack the face" of the United States and other "enemies."
The Friday vote is the first national election since the ill-fated 2009 presidential election, in which widespread irregularities and charges of fraud prompted months of street protests, a violent crackdown on the opposition Green Movement, and a deep crisis of legitimacy.
Opposition leaders long under house arrest have called for a boycott, and voting for the 290-seat chamber comes amid widespread political apathy and deep dissatisfaction among Iranians about biting sanctions, economic uncertainty, and talk of war over Iran's nuclear program.
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, engaged in a power struggle between conservative factions and anxious that a high turnout bolster his legitimacy at home and abroad, said this was Iran’s most important election ever.
"With the help of God, I think the Iranian nation will on Friday give a more powerful smack to the face of the Global Arrogance [United States]," Ayatollah Khamenei said yesterday, calling on Iranians to show their "steely determination" in foiling enemy "plots."
Khamenei needs a high turnout "so that to the outside world he can say that his regime still has enough support to attract a majority of people to the polling stations," says Muhammad Sahimi, a professor at the University of Southern California and an analyst for the Tehran Bureau website.
The task is not easy for a regime that millions of Iranians believe stole their votes in 2009 for the surging opposition candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi. Hard-liners won that battle of wills, but many Iranians have now stepped away from politics as a result – making this de facto referendum on Khamenei's rule all the more significant for the regime.
"There is no energy in the air about this election at all," says a Tehran resident who could not be named. "The turnout numbers are predetermined, and no matter how many show up, they will declare 65 percent."
But the primary purpose of the vote, says this resident, is that Khamenei is "going to uproot [President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's] dynasty, which he helped create."
Khamenei vs. Ahmadinejad
In the 2009 elections, Khamenei endorsed Mr. Ahmadinejad's reelection as a "divine assessment." But since then Iran's political space has shifted to the far right, marked by vicious political infighting among conservatives and a power struggle between the supreme leader and Iran's divisive president.
A host of conservative factions are fielding candidates, but a number of those linked to Ahmadinejad have sought to hide their loyalty to the controversial president. Uneasy conservative opponents have charged his closest advisers with sorcery and leading a "deviant current."
After simmering for years, the tussle between Khamenei and Ahmadinejad unfolded very publicly in April 2011 over who would be minister of Intelligence. Khamenei – whose decisions are meant to have divine writ – overruled Ahmadinejad, prompting a 10-day sulk by the president.
Ahmadinejad's term ends in just over a year, so the results tomorrow will shape Iran's political future.
Khamenei's faction is "worried that Ahmadinejad and his supporters will steal the elections, because they control the Ministry of Interior, [which] supervises and counts the vote," says Sahimi. "If Ahmadinejad somehow manages to get control of parliament, then we are going to see a lot of tension in the country."
Iran's big push for high turnout
Khamenei and senior clerics have told Iranians it is their religious duty to vote. Since its 1979 people-power Islamic revolution, the regime has trumpeted its popular support, and in every election equated a mass turnout with legitimacy.
As in the runup to previous elections, state-run TV broadcast endless images of people flocking to polling stations in the past, and interviews with Iranians enthusiastically ready to cast their ballots.
"They [claim] that with one finger" – the one dipped in ink, to prove you have voted – "you can slap the face of the world powers," says a veteran Tehran analyst who asked not to be named.
"So imagine if you really believe it, it makes you feel so great, as if you are doing something huge, not just voting [but] turning back conspiracies of the enemies – it's a small thing to do, [spun so that] the results are like infinity."
Showing the opposition Green Movement has been broken
A key motive for Khamenei is to show that the opposition Green Movement has been broken since mobilizing the largest protests in the history of the Islamic Republic three years ago.
"Khamenei wants to show that the opposition does not have so much support that it can create a large-scale boycott of the elections," says Mr. Sahimi.
"Of course, Khamenei [also] wants to show that he is still credible enough so that people listen to what he says when he asks them to vote," says Sahimi.
Iran has held some 30 elections in the past three decades, but none prompted the anger that burst after the 2009 vote. Millions of Iranians chanted "Where is my vote?" in a mass protest, aided by social media, that served as the template for Arab Spring revolts that began to cascade in 2011.
Scores, if not hundreds, died in Iran street battles and abuses like rape marred the regime crackdown against "sedition" – a chain of events that still obsesses Iranian politicians.
Outspoken hard-line parliamentarian Ali Motahari was applauded by students this week, for example, when he said deaths in 2009 were "much higher" than 50.
"Event the prophet [Muhammad] allowed people to criticize him, so how is it that some people think we should not criticize [our] supreme leader?" Motahari asked, according to the EAWorldview website.
"Green is gone ... but the dissatisfaction and feeling of bitterness and hate [from 2009] remain, it's [just] gone to the background," notes the veteran Tehran analyst.
"Right now, what's on the minds of the people is that the economy is bad, sanctions are bad, talk of war is bad, devaluation of the rial is bad," says the analyst.
'Vote for me! I stand for smiling.'
Indeed, the vote comes as the impact of sanctions is likely to worsen, as US and European measures hit Iran's lifeblood oil exports and central bank.
"Ordinary people don't [care] about the debate going on within the regime, it's not their problem," says the Tehran analyst. "Their problem is everyday life, and prices, and gasoline. Also people say: 'No change is going to happen.' There are no issues."
Leaflets for one candidate, for example, simply list three words: well-being, smile, tranquility.
"Believe it or not, this guy is saying: 'Vote for me! I stand for smiling – nothing sad and crying, and beating ourselves up anymore,' " says the Tehran analyst.
Is that enough to convince Iranians to vote? While many of Iran's reform-minded youth and disillusioned others stay home tomorrow, they will be joined in their boycott by some conservatives who can no longer stomach the world-conquering platitudes of get-out-the-vote politicians.
"For years, they have induced the people to vote in order to 'slap the arrogant powers,' " conservative publisher Hesameddin Motahari wrote in a blog to explain his boycott, as translated by Tehran Bureau.
"From two weeks before the elections until two weeks after, they broadcast patriotic songs and ask the people to vote.... Each time, dissatisfaction and problems told me 'do not vote,' but the speeches of the Supreme Leader, the television reports, and the patriotic songs fascinated me and [I did vote]....
"But this is no longer enough," said Mr. Motahari. "I believe that voting will make the government even more emboldened to repeat its mistakes in the future."