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Iran’s clerics seek high voter turnout in election to replace Raisi

2 weeks ago 39

Iranians are headed to the polls Friday for a snap election to choose a new president, with a slate of mostly conservative candidates seeking to replace hard-line leader Ebrahim Raisi after he died last month in a helicopter crash.

The vote comes as Iran copes with multiple crises, including an ailing economy and tensions with Israel. Raisi, a protégé of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, is the second Iranian president to die while in office since the Islamic Revolution in 1979.

For Iran’s ruling clerics, a smooth, predictable election with high voter turnout is important both for the regime’s stability and its legitimacy. The influential Guardian Council, an unelected body of jurists and theologians, vetted and approved six candidates for the race — two of whom dropped out on the eve of the election to consolidate the conservative vote.

The primary front-runners are parliamentary speaker Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, and ultraconservative Saeed Jalili, a former chief nuclear negotiator. Masoud Pezeshkian, a cardiac surgeon, is the only contender from the reformist camp, which favors gradual change and engagement with the West.

In Iran, the president yields to the supreme leader on critical matters such as national security and defense, but he also has the power to set the country’s economic policies, oversee the national budget and sign treaties and legislation.

The polls opened at 8 a.m. across the country and state media showed Khamenei casting his ballot at a polling station in Tehran. “Some are undecided,” he told reporters, apparently addressing reports that many Iranians will sit out the vote. “There is no justification for being undecided ... the continuity of the Islamic Republic depends on people’s turnout and participation.”

Earlier this week Khamenei called for “maximum” voter turnout, saying that elections “help the Islamic Republic overcome its enemies.” He also warned the public against supporting candidates who “think that all ways to progress pass through America,” a veiled reference to Pezeshkian.

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Since it was established, Iran’s Islamic government has emphasized elections to underpin its authority, even as it upheld a largely theocratic system that grants political and religious power to Shiite clergy.

“It’s a contradiction that’s been at the heart of the system since its founding,” said Naysan Rafati, an Iran analyst at the International Crisis Group, and one that has “become increasingly stark over the past few years.”

Iran once boasted high voter turnout, which reached 70 percent when President Hassan Rouhani was reelected in 2017, according to state media. But since then, the figures have plummeted, with about 40 percent of eligible voters participating in this year’s parliamentary election — a historic low for the Islamic Republic.

In that time, Iran faced political, social and economic turmoil, including the unraveling of its nuclear deal with world powers and the return of U.S. trade sanctions that crippled the economy. Its most prominent general, Qasem Soleimani, was killed in a U.S. airstrike near the Baghdad airport, raising fears of a wider war. And at home, three waves of mass protests — over price hikes, austerity measures and the country’s strict moral codes — were met with deadly crackdowns by Iranian security forces.

“I think the people who are going to vote are either connected to the system, which means they are happy with how things are, or they are very naive,” said a 38-year-old bakery owner in Tehran.

She spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear of reprisal by authorities, saying that the last time she voted was in 2009. That year, officials announced that hard-line candidate Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had won the presidency in a landslide, prompting massive street protests led by Iran’s reformists. Authorities cracked down hard on the protest leaders, sending them to prison or into exile. The bakery owner said she lost hope in the ability to influence change.

“To be honest with you, I don’t trust any of them,” she said of Iran’s political class. “I think it is silly to have hope.”

Others followed a similar trajectory, including Arash, 38, a construction worker in Tehran. He said he was disillusioned by the government’s response to the most recent protests in 2022, when nationwide unrest broke out following the death in police custody of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini.

Arash, who spoke on the condition that he only be identified by his first name out of concern for his safety, said he was arrested for participating in the demonstrations. And the mood among his friends this week was one of “extreme anger.”

“There is this apocalyptic view that we should vote for the most hard-line candidate and maybe that would make the situation worse,” mobilizing people to topple the government, he said.

Arash doesn’t necessarily agree that it is the best strategy and said he still might vote, but not because he thinks anything will improve. Rather, he believes that wider voter participation will make it more difficult for the government to fake the results.

According to Rafati, authorities have not taken any steps to address the underlying concerns that are keeping people away from the ballot box.

“They’d like to have the best of both worlds. They’d like to be able to point to high turnout and be able to claim popular legitimacy, he said. “While at the same time narrowing the band of permissible candidates to a handpicked few that even by the system’s own exclusionary standards has become very, very narrow.”

If no candidate reaches 50 percent, a second round between the two contenders with the most votes will be held next week. But a runoff election could mean more uncertainty, an outcome the supreme leader probably wants to avoid, said Suzanne Maloney, vice president and director of foreign policy at the Brookings Institution, where her research focuses on Iran.

“A second round could jump-start the mobilization of Iranians who are interested in reform or even more ambitious outcomes in a way that could be threatening to the absolute control of the system,” she said.

Many of the “constraints” Iran has introduced to the election process — such as the strict vetting of candidates — aim to minimize the unpredictability voting brings to the political space, said Maloney.

“Khamenei traditionally has not been much of a gambler on domestic politics,” she said.

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