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Polls close on Iranian presidential vote, as many frustrated citizens stay away

Initial results expected in morning; final turnout expected to be among lowest in nation’s history, as stunted candidate field seemingly designed to hand win to hardliner Raisi

An Iranian Christian woman waits to register before voting at a polling station located in a school for Tehran's minority Christian community, on the day of the Islamic republic's presidential election on June 18, 2021. (MORTEZA NIKOUBAZL / AFP)
An Iranian Christian woman waits to register before voting at a polling station located in a school for Tehran's minority Christian community, on the day of the Islamic republic's presidential election on June 18, 2021. (MORTEZA NIKOUBAZL / AFP)

TEHRAN, Iran — Turnout in Iran’s presidential election appeared to be far lower than compared to previous elections Friday, as Iranians frustrated by authorities’ disqualification of all but a few candidates and government disfunction voted to stay home rather than cast ballots in the election many consider to have already been decided.

Opinion polling by state-linked organizations along with analysts indicated that judiciary chief Ebrahim Raisi — a hard-line protege of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei — was the front-runner in a field of just four candidates, whittled down by authorities’ disqualification of nearly all of his strongest competition.

Former Central Bank chief Abdolnasser Hemmati was running as the race’s moderate candidate but hasn’t inspired the same support as outgoing President Hassan Rouhani, who is term-limited from seeking the office again.

The disqualifications of almost all of the candidates who originally entered the field had fueled apathy and calls for a boycott, and as night fell turnout appeared much lighter than in the last election in 2017.

Balloting came to a close at 2.a.m. Saturday, after the government extended voting to accommodate what it called “crowding” at several polling places nationwide. Paper ballots, stuffed into large plastic boxes, were to be counted by hand through the night, and authorities said they expected to have initial results and turnout figures Saturday morning at the earliest.

State television offered tight shots of polling places, several of which seemed to have only a handful of voters in the election’s early hours.

Those passing by several polling places in Tehran said they similarly saw few voters.

Women voters pose with their stamped national identity booklets (Shenasnameh) after voting at a polling station in Iran’s capital Tehran on June 18, 2021, during the 2021 presidential election. (ATTA KENARE / AFP)

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 organize the elections for the media.”

Photographers and cameramen wait for the arrival of a candidate for the presidential election Abdolnasser Hemmati, former Central Bank chief, at a polling station in Tehran, Iran, Friday, June 18, 2021. (AP/Vahid Salemi)

In addition to the disqualifications, voter apathy has also been fed by the devastated state of the economy and subdued campaigning amid a months-long surge in coronavirus cases. In images on state TV, poll workers wore gloves and masks, and some wiped down ballot boxes with disinfectants.

“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.”

Out of an initial field of almost 600 hopefuls for the presidency, only seven — all men — were approved to run by the Guardian Council, a body of 12 clerics and jurists. Two days before polling day, three approved candidates dropped out of the race.

Among those disqualified were former parliament speaker Ali Larijani and populist ex-president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who was among those calling for a boycott.

If elected, Raisi would be the first serving Iranian president sanctioned by the US government even before entering office, over his involvement in the mass execution of political prisoners in 1988, as well as his time as the head of Iran’s internationally criticized judiciary — one of the world’s top executioners.

It also would put hard-liners firmly in control across the Iranian government as negotiations in Vienna continue to try to save a tattered deal meant to limit Iran’s nuclear program at a time when Tehran is enriching uranium at its highest levels ever, though still short of weapons-grade levels.

A couple fill out their ballot papers at a polling station during the presidential elections in Tehran, Iran, Friday, June 18, 2021. (AP/Vahid Salemi)

Tensions remain high with both the US and Israel, which is believed to have carried out a series of attacks targeting Iranian nuclear sites as well as assassinating the scientist who created its military atomic program decades earlier.

Whoever wins will likely serve two four-year terms and thus may be at the helm at what could be one of the most crucial moments for the country in decades — the death of the 82-year-old Khamenei. Already, speculation has mounted that Raisi may be a contender for the position, along with Khamenei’s son, Mojtaba.

Polls opened at 7 a.m. local time for the vote, which is slated to go until midnight local time and may be extended by two hours.

Results are expected around noon Saturday. If no clear winner emerges, a runoff will be held on Friday next week.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei casts his vote for the presidential election at a polling station in the capital Tehran, on June 18, 2021. (Atta KENARE / AFP)

Khamenei cast the first vote from Tehran, urging the public to take part.

“Through the participation of the people the country and the Islamic ruling system will win great points in the international arena, but the ones who benefit first are the people themselves,” Khamenei said. “Go ahead, choose and vote.”

Raisi, wearing a black turban that identifies him in Shiite tradition as a direct descendant of Islam’s Prophet Muhammad, voted from a mosque in southern Tehran, waving to those gathered to cast their own ballots. The cleric acknowledged in comments afterward that some may be “so upset that they don’t want to vote.”

“I beg everyone, the lovely youths, and all Iranian men and women speaking in any accent or language from any region and with any political views, to go and vote and cast their ballots,” Raisi said.

Iranian ultraconservative cleric and presidential candidate Ebrahim Raisi casts his ballot for the presidential election, in the capital Tehran, on June 18, 2021. (ATTA KENARE / AFP)

But few appeared to heed the call. There are more than 59 million eligible voters in Iran, a nation home to over 80 million people. However, the state-linked Iranian Student Polling Agency has estimated a turnout will be just 44%, which would be the lowest ever since the country’s 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Just over 12 hours into voting, nationwide turnout had reached 37%, reported the FARS news agency, as overseas Iranians also cast their ballots in Iraq, Kuwait, Lebanon and elsewhere.

Fears about a low turnout have some warning Iran may be turning away from being an Islamic Republic — a government with elected civilian leadership overseen by a supreme leader from its Shiite clergy — to a country more tightly governed by its supreme leader, who already has final say on all matters of state and oversees its defense and atomic program.

“This is not acceptable,” said former president Mohammad Khatami, a reformist who sought to change the theocracy from the inside during his eight years in office. “How would this conform to being a republic or Islamic?”

Despite the widespread apathy, many queued to vote at schools, mosques and community centers.

Voters queue at a polling station during the presidential elections in Tehran, Iran, Friday, June 18, 2021. (AP/Vahid Salemi)

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”.

As Hemmati voted in Tehran, he was mobbed by journalists and told them that the Iranian people have the “right to have a peaceful and good life.”

A supporter of the candidate for the presidential election Abdolnasser Hemmati, former Central Bank chief, chants slogans in support of him after he voted, outside at a polling station in Tehran, Iran, Friday, June 18, 2021. (AP/Vahid Salemi)

For his part, Khamenei warned of “foreign plots” seeking to depress turnout in a speech Wednesday. A flyer handed out Wednesday on the streets of Tehran by hard-liners echoed that and bore the image of Revolutionary Guard Gen. Qassem Soleimani, who was killed in a US drone strike in 2020. A polling station was set up by Soleimani’s grave on Friday.

“If we do not vote: Sanctions will be heavier, the US and Israel will be encouraged to attack Iran,” the leaflet warned. “Iran will be under the shadow of a Syrian-style civil war and the ground will be ready for the assassination of scientists and important figures.”

Some voters appeared to echo that call.

“We cannot leave our destiny in the hands of foreigners and let them decide for us and create conditions that will be absolutely harmful for us,” Tehran voter Shahla Pazouki said.

Yet the disqualification of candidates seemed aimed at preventing anyone other than Raisi from winning the election. Also hurting a moderate like Hemmati is the public anger aimed at Rouhani, whose signature 2015 nuclear deal collapsed after then-President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew America from the accord in 2018. Iran’s already ailing economy has suffered since, with double-digit inflation and mass unemployment.

Iranian men play backgammon at a cafe in the Ekbatan neighborhood in western Tehran on Presidential elections day, on June 18, 2021.(MORTEZA NIKOUBAZL / AFP)

The vote “is set to be the least competitive election in the Islamic Republic’s history,” wrote Torbjorn Soltvedt, an analyst at the risk consultancy firm Verisk Maplecroft. “There will be little need for the more overt forms of election fraud that characterized the turbulent reelection of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2009.”

Tehran blacksmith Abolfazl, aged in his 60s, talked of his disappointment as a patriot who had joined the 1979 revolution.

“I took part in a revolution to choose for myself, not so others can choose for me,” he said. “I love my country, but I do not accept these candidates.”

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