Iran votes: How apathy and anger are fueling leaders’ unease

Why We Wrote This

Voting represents more than making a choice; it’s an affirmation of faith in “the system.” But in Iran this year, an increasingly dejected citizenry, and insecure leadership, are lowering projections for turnout.

Vahid Salemi/AP
A banner showing Shahabeddin Adib Yazdi, a candidate in Friday's parliamentary election, hangs on a street in downtown Tehran, Iran, Feb. 17, 2020. Iranian authorities have barred thousands of candidates from running, mainly reformists and moderates, potentially swinging the election toward hard-liners. Despite leaders' appeals, voter turnout is expected to be low.

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Iranians vote in parliamentary elections Friday, and officials from the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, on down have all but begged citizens to show up so they can equate high voter turnout with continued popular support for Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution.

But after a year of setbacks for the country, voters’ disappointment and anger at the ruling system – and its inability to improve their lives – have led to one of the most lackluster campaigns in recent memory. The candidates’ ranks have been purged of thousands of moderate and reformist voices, and turnout is expected to be at record lows.

“I did vote in the past, but not anymore. How can I give a seal of approval on this regime’s performance?” asks Yaser, a taxi driver in Tehran whose cellphone business went bust. Increasingly, Iranians use the word “hopelessness” regarding their economic plight and disdain for politics.

Many Iranians “want the regime to reform itself, but they are realizing that it cannot,” says Farideh Farhi, an Iran expert recently retired from the University of Hawaii. “So, hopelessness is precisely the right word, because you are stuck in a system you don’t know how to impact in a positive direction.”

There is still no shortage of True Believers in Iran’s revolution ready to cast ballots for hard-line and conservative candidates in Friday’s parliamentary election.

But there are also a growing number of Iranians whose disappointment, apathy, and anger at the ruling system – and its repeated inability to improve their lives through the ballot box – have led to one of the most lackluster election campaigns in recent memory.

Turnout in the one-sided contest – the candidates’ ranks have been purged of thousands of moderate and reformist voices – is expected to be at record lows.

Officials from the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, on down, have all but begged citizens to show up so they can equate – as in the past – high voter turnout with continued popular support for Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution and its rulers.

“The polls will defuse America’s evil intentions,” Ayatollah Khamenei said Tuesday, adding that voting was a religious duty. “A weak parliament will adversely change the course of Iran’s fight against the enemies.”

But Iran is reeling from an annus horribilis marked by violent street protests over fuel price hikes last November amid a biting “maximum pressure” campaign of U.S. sanctions. The protests were halted only by a brutal crackdown that left several hundred dead.

Other blows include the assassination by the United States of Iran’s most powerful general in January, and in the aftermath, the brief cover-up of the Revolutionary Guard’s accidental downing of a Ukrainian jetliner, which killed all 176 people aboard and sparked more anti-regime protests.

The rejection of 7,296 candidates (including 80 sitting lawmakers) out of 15,000 who applied to contest 290 seats in parliament indicates a high level of anxiety by Iran’s rulers, analysts say, and reflects a determination to leave no chance of a last-minute reformist surge.

Tools of change

It also shows the extent, as the Islamic Republic evolves after four decades, to which elected institutions like parliament and even the presidency have been eviscerated as tools of change.

One result may be unified rule by hard-liners, which in every previous configuration – under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, for example – not only failed to solve Iran’s problems, but often made them worse.

“I did vote in the past, but not anymore. How can I give a seal of approval on this regime’s performance?” asks Yaser, a married taxi driver in his 40s who has worked for Iran’s version of Uber in Tehran since his cellphone business went bust amid currency fluctuations.

“The sanctions have crippled us. Yes, the U.S. is blamed, but how about domestic corruption?” says Yaser. “I have no doubt [the regime] will collapse sooner or later. Let’s not forget the victims of the November protests. They were out for us, we can’t go out [to support] the regime, which killed them in broad daylight.”

That view is echoed by Shirin, a student of applied linguistics in her 20s, who sits in a cafe in central Tehran where, as in other Iranian cities, turnout is expected to be as low as 20% to 30%. Nationwide, Iran’s leaders hope for a 50% show of support.

“I can’t see any bright future, but I can’t see this regime’s [exit] any time soon either,” says Shirin, who plans to emigrate to Canada. “So, I won’t waste my life anymore here.”

“Hopelessness” cited

Such sentiments have only become more widespread as Iranians use the word “hopelessness” more and more about their economic plight and disdain for politics.

“At any juncture, where there was a possibility to decide on a more inclusive system, the decision was made in the direction of exclusion – explicitly – [which] makes the base of the regime even smaller,” says Farideh Farhi, an Iran expert recently retired from the University of Hawaii.

Nazanin Tabatabaee/WANA/Reuters
Iranian parliamentary candidates take part in an election campaign event in Tehran, Iran, Feb. 18, 2020.

“The hopelessness comes from the question of what to aspire to,” says Ms. Farhi. Many Iranians “want the regime to reform itself, but they are realizing that it cannot, and it constantly shows that it cannot.”

“They ask, ‘If it cannot reform itself, what else can we do?’ And they realize that anything they want to do might lead to further violence and instability,” she says. “So, hopelessness is precisely the right word, because you are stuck in a system you don’t know how to impact in a positive direction.”

President Hassan Rouhani noted as much when he warned the Guardian Council, the 12-member body that vets candidates, that it had gone too far in barring so many less-hard-line voices.

“The biggest danger to democracy and the rule of the nation comes on the day when elections turn into a formality, when choices are made somewhere else,” Mr. Rouhani said Jan. 27.

Loss of control?

The president was rebuked by Ayatollah Khamenei, who days later said: “When you say that the elections have been engineered, the people become naturally discouraged.”

The supreme leader, calling upon Iranians to vote for their nation and for “security” – even if they do not personally like him – said Iran’s enemies, “although they are afraid of our missiles, they are more intimidated by the Islamic Republic’s popular support.”

But past gambits to boost voter turnout are not being used. Previous Iranian elections have been notable for how the political space for criticism opened up and social restrictions were eased in the weeks before election day, to help reassure voters.

Not this time.

“I expected a bit of loosening ... to open the atmosphere, but it is exactly the opposite,” says a veteran political analyst in Tehran who asked not to be named. “They are tightening it up, they are showing very little tolerance for any dissent. They are arresting students, they are searching and raiding some of the journalists’ homes.

“I think they are worried very much, judging by this security getting tighter. They don’t feel relaxed, that they are in complete control,” says the analyst.

“The regime knows, the decision-makers know, that the people are not enthusiastic about the elections. ... They are suffering,” he says. “This disappointment, confusion, and hopelessness about the future is not limited to the middle class and lower class, it has extended to the loyalists – the people who have always been ready to vote.”

He notes that the term mostaza’fin, “the oppressed,” who have long been lionized in Iran’s revolutionary discourse, has rarely been used officially since that very category of people rose up in protest at poor economic conditions in early 2018.

The believers

Still, there is no shortage of believers who answer the leader’s call. Among them is Roghayyeh, a primary school teacher in her 20s who wears a chador and can’t wait to contribute to a victory of hard-liners and conservatives. She wants to further weaken – or even impeach – Mr. Rouhani, whom she blames for naively agreeing to a doomed nuclear deal, and for crippling U.S. sanctions.

“Am I going to vote? No doubt, but let’s not mix things up. We have economic woes. Life has become really hard. But that has nothing to do with the basics of the revolution,” says Roghayyeh, as she pushes her daughter’s stroller during a recent pro-regime march.

“It’s only because of the mismanagement of the reformists,” she asserts. “People made a real mistake by voting for Rouhani. Look at the nuclear deal. Never trust Americans, that’s one of the basics of the revolution. But Rouhani did so and pushed us to where we are. I’m sure a revolutionary parliament will change course.”

Saman – a clean-shaven, jeans-wearing student of nursing – will also vote, though he says the Guardian Council “mistreated” reformists by rejecting so many, which “just gives an excuse to enemies to turn on their loudspeakers and say, ‘Look at Iran, there is no democracy there.’”

“Our leader recently said if we become strong, no enemy can defeat us,” says Saman, speaking during the march last week to mark the 41st anniversary of the revolution. “There is no doubt we are at a moment of crisis. So, the only solution is the vote.”

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