Iranians Say Elections Bring Little Change, So Why Vote?

Except for the fraying posters of Iran’s presidential candidates plastered on highway overpasses, there were few signs this weekend that the country had held a presidential election on Friday and was heading to a runoff.

There were scarcely any rallies to applaud the two top vote-getters who are from opposite ends of the political spectrum and whom Iranians will decide between on July 5.

Even from the government’s official numbers, it was evident that the real winner of Friday’s election was Iran’s silent majority that either left their ballot blank or cast no vote at all. Some 60 percent of eligible voters did not cast a vote or opted to cast a blank one.

That was because there was no point in voting, said Bita Irani, 40, a housewife in Tehran, Iran’s capital: “We had a choice between bad and worse,” she said. “There is no difference between one and another candidate.”

Many Iranians now see no reason to be engaged, she said. “We are watchers, not participants,” she said. “We watch the elections, and if there are riots, we watch them, but we will not vote.”

Her assessment was one I heard over and over as I talked to people from different backgrounds around Tehran — even from some who had voted but seemed to be girding themselves for disappointment.

Many people were distressed with their past election experiences and dissatisfied with their leaders’ inability to address Iran’s most pressing issues, particularly the ailing economy.

Still, despite Iran’s limited tolerance for dissent, people spoke somewhat freely, offering a glimpse of the skeptical sentiment in the capital.

Looming large was the frustrated history of Iran’s reform movement, which attempted to loosen both domestic and foreign policies of the Islamic Republic, from relaxing social freedoms to improving relations with the West. Several prominent Iranians, including two presidents, had embraced reformist platforms, but their efforts were consistently blocked by the country’s religious leadership, leading to waves of protests that ended in crackdowns and violence.

The most recent of those efforts took the form of a nationwide uprising in 2022 that was led by women. It began as a protest against Iran’s mandatory hijab law but soon widened to calls for the end of clerical rule. By the time the demonstrations were crushed, more than 500 people had been killed and more than 22,000 detained, according to a United Nations fact-checking mission.

Those defeats in the recent past left even those who did vote for the lone reform candidate in this election tempering their expectations.

Farzad Jafari, 36, who runs an export company for agricultural goods, sat with four friends at a neighborhood cafe in a leafy square in upscale north Tehran on Saturday, a day after the voting. He said he almost had not bothered to vote.

Most people he knew sat out of this round of the presidential race, he said, and of the four people having coffee with him, only Mr. Jafari and one of his friends had cast ballots.

“I did not want to vote at all because they excluded those who should have been in the race,” Mr. Jafari said, referring to Iran’s system of having a council of Muslim clerics, known as the Guardian Council, vet potential candidates.

He realized, he said, that it was unlikely anyone could bring change because ultimately all decisions are made by the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader.

After the first-round vote, only two candidates remained in the race: Masoud Pezeshkian, a reformist for whom Mr. Jafari had voted, and Saeed Jalili, an ultraconservative former nuclear negotiator.

That a reform candidate had made it to the runoff seemed to energize Mr. Jafari and another man at the table and soon they were gaming out their next steps. They talked about which candidate would get the votes of those who were no longer in the race, and how many Iranians who boycotted the first round might vote in the second.

The key question, however, was whether a potential runoff between a hard-line conservative and a reformist will motivate reform-minded voters to turn out to cast ballots on July 5, including those who boycotted the first round. If so, that could be seen as a victory for the government, which views participation in elections as a measure of the regime’s legitimacy.

As the conversation turned to Friday’s runoff and I asked if those who had not voted in the first round might do so in the second, three of them shook their heads no. Mr. Jafari looked rueful.

“People don’t have hope,” he said, but then added, “But the thing is, it’s the only thing we can do, is hope.”

Similar sentiments prevailed in the square among four women who were getting together before going shopping in the brimming Tajrish bazaar — where saffron and cardamom is sold as well as fabric for drapes, fine cotton scarves and knock off designer bags, alongside cooking pots and vats of homemade yogurt.

The women’s politics, clothes and tone could not have been more different from each other. Fatima, 40, a mother of three, wore a black chador. Sherveen, 52, a civil engineer, was wearing a fashionably cut mustard-colored blouse and rust pants. Her head scarf barely covered her head. A third woman wore stylish loose linen pants and her thin white hijab draped around her shoulders.

Of the four women, two voted and two did not. All four of them requested to be referred to only by their first names out of fear of reprisal either at their jobs or from family members.

Even Fatima, who voted for the most conservative candidate and seemed the most committed to the election, did not sound truly enthusiastic. For her, voting was a religious duty.

But, she added, if the reform candidate wins, “I will support him.”

Fatima found reassurance and stability in all the candidates being approved by Iran’s religious leadership, contrary to many Iranians, who saw such culling as a way of shutting down attempts to change Iran’s clergy-dominated system.

Sherveen, by contrast, said she had lost all faith in the government and, like a number of educated and skilled Iranians, was considering leaving Iran. She is thinking of going to Canada, although not quite yet — her son was in his last year of high school. Her daughter is already in Toronto, as are several of her siblings.

“We don’t trust anyone the government allows to run, unfortunately,” she said. “All of it is getting worse. It used to be better five or 10 years ago, but now we have less money, less liberties. Economy and liberty, those are the key.”

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