Iran election: Why youth are voting despite muted expectations of change

The much-sought-after constituency in Friday's elections sees little chance of dislodging hard-liners, but say President Rouhani has made their lives better. 

Scott Peterson/The Christian Science Monitor/Getty Images
Iranians attend a rally for moderate and reformist candidates in elections for Parliament and the Assembly of Experts in an indoor sports arena in central Tehran, Iran, on February 23, 2016. The vote is essentially a referendum on the agenda of centrist President Hassan Rouhani, whose allies are trying to ease the grip of hardliners over many levers of government.

The students pressed hard to get through the door of a Tehran University auditorium, then overfilled the back aisles to hear two veteran politicians speak about the need to chip away at hard-liners’ hold on power in the upcoming national elections.

They got what they came for: Ali Motahari, a maverick conservative lawmaker who has been physically attacked by hard-liners before, criticized the practice of disqualifying candidates linked to past protests, saying it “distances parliament from reality.”

It was a mistake, Mr. Motahari said, to have made Iran’s Islamic system of rule “so holy.”

Iran’s youth and students have had an outsized impact on the country's modern history, from the 1979 Islamic Revolution to the reformist movement of the late 1990s to the Green Movement protests in 2009, whose brutal repression led to lasting disillusionment with the political system.

Iran’s powers-that-be have worked hard to encourage high turnout for the votes Friday for parliament and the supervisory Assembly of Experts, and young people are a sought-after constituency in a country where two-thirds of the population is under 35.

The stakes are high, because the result will shape Iran’s future for years. In the past two decades, young voters spearheaded landslides for reformists, or their boycotts handed victory to hard-liners.

Despite mass disqualifications of prospective candidates that predominantly targeted moderates, there is little talk of a boycott this time, and youth turnout is expected to be substantial. One poll published late Wednesday predicted a 70 percent total nationwide turnout for all voters.

But flashes of excitement have been episodic, at best, as centrist and reformist figures try to ease the hard-line gridlock that has blocked centrist President Hassan Rouhani’s agenda of loosening social restrictions and outreach to the West.

Low turnout at rallies

Reformist rallies are drawing disappointing crowds, and few talk about swift, transformational change in the way Mr. Rouhani did when he trounced half a dozen conservative candidates in 2013, with just over half the vote.

Instead, moderates have lowered the bar, for now calling for an increase in the number of pro-Rouhani members of parliament and the Assembly of Experts – a clerical body that will choose Iran’s next supreme leader.

“Our only weapon is our vote,” a bearded student leader exhorted from the podium at Tehran University.

“Democracy is made step by step,” says Vahid Barzegar, a civil engineering student with a thick goatee, after the meeting. “I am not hopeful, but there is no alternative.”

“This [voting] is the best option we have,” says Mohammad, a fellow student with thinning hair, who gave only his first name. “We want to help the government of Rouhani.”

Reformist former President Mohammad Khatami, banned from speaking to media because of his close ties to Green Movement leaders, endorsed a “list of hope” for both bodies, using a YouTube video to defy the ban. Former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani has called Friday’s vote a “valuable opportunity” to prevent institutionalizing “radicalism and religious extremism.”

Both former presidents have wide followings among young Iranians, and their support was crucial to Rouhani’s victory. Both have called for a mass turnout.

Scott Peterson/The Christian Science Monitor/Getty Images
Iranians attend a rally for moderate and reformist candidates in elections for Parliament and the Assembly of Experts in an indoor sports arena in central Tehran, Iran, on February 23, 2016. The vote is essentially a referendum on the agenda of centrist President Hassan Rouhani, whose allies are trying to ease the grip of hardliners over many levers of government.

The cafe scene

A reformist rally Tuesday was lackluster, with just half the seats filled in a central Tehran sports arena. But some supporters were boisterous, amid the large campaign banners and tall portraits of Iranian wrestling greats.

“I am optimistic. We young people are going to build this country. We will all vote for sure,” says Leili Heydari, an architecture student supporting a pro-labor incumbent. Wearing a full black chador, she adds: “Our country is good now. Whatever the Leader wishes for the country, we are satisfied with it.”

She was immediately taken to task: “You’re satisfied? C’mon, you’re satisfied with this?” asked Khatereh Khanbabaei, a middle-aged woman who has lived in Germany.

Deep in a poorer section of southwest Tehran, a bright wedding hall was used for another reformist meeting. Barely 100 people turned up at the ribbon-bedecked tables, even though the main opposition leader Mohammad Reza Aref was due to speak.

But while rallies on both sides of Iran’s political divide are preaching to the converted, some undecideds are still making up their minds at Iran’s half-hidden cafes.

'You can feel less tension'

“I’m not so into politics, so I don’t know about what Rouhani didn’t do,” says Borna, a clean-shaven architecture student with an iPhone 6, leafing through a textbook at the Café Romance in central Tehran with a friend. “I felt things went better these last two years, and I’m going to vote for that.”

Since Rouhani was elected, Borna says, he has felt “peace of mind,” even though high prices have not changed. “You can feel less tension. I think it’s going to get better.”

He is trying to convince his fellow student to vote. Kiana puts down her Samsung Note 4 with green trim and admits the atmosphere has changed significantly since the days of conservative President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

“If we would go out [then], we had to think where we could go without getting into trouble – now we don’t have to think about it,” she says, noting far fewer morality police on the streets.

Still, she is reluctant to vote because she doesn’t know the candidates.

“It is not the way to change things. They [hard-liners] are going to do whatever they want,” says Kiana, her long ponytail hanging beyond the reach of her black headscarf.

Rouhani 'changed a lot of things'

In the smoking section, law student and theater actor Ali shares a table with his girlfriend, Roxanna. He says Iranians have the freedom to vote – “not completely, like America” – and the freedom not to.

But he also says Rouhani has “changed a lot of things” that are “getting better every single day.” He says he can hold Roxanna’s hand in the street with less fear than before.

Uptown, at another cafe, Azita, a recent graduate, says that after Rouhani’s victory the streets were “full of happiness, at max for a week, then everyone went back to their jobs.”

“Rouhani says that he cares; it’s better than nothing,” she says. “But if you ask Iranians what they will be doing in the next five years, they can’t answer, because they don’t know what will happen tomorrow.”

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