Iranians say elections bring little change, so why vote?

Aside from the tattered posters of Iranian presidential candidates plastered on highway overpasses, there were few signs this weekend that the country had held a presidential election on Friday and was headed toward a runoff.

There were almost no demonstrations to applaud the two most voted candidates, who come from opposite ends of the political spectrum and between whom Iranians will decide on July 5.

Even from the government's official numbers, it was clear that the real winner of Friday's election was Iran's silent majority who either left their ballots blank or didn't vote at all. About 60 percent of those eligible did not vote or opted for a blank ballot.

That's 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 candidate and another.”

Many Iranians now see no reason to engage, he said. “We are observers, not participants,” she said. “We watch the elections and if there are riots, we watch them, but we won't vote.”

His assessment was one I heard again and again as I spoke to people of diverse backgrounds in Tehran, including some who had voted but seemed to be bracing themselves for disappointment.

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

However, despite Iran's limited tolerance for dissent, people spoke quite freely, giving a sense of the skeptical sentiment in the capital.

Looming was the frustrating history of Iran's reform movement, which attempted to loosen both the Islamic Republic's domestic and foreign policies, from loosening 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, prompting waves of protests that escalated into crackdowns and violence.

The most recent of these efforts took the form of a national uprising in 2022 led by women. It began as a protest against Iran's mandatory hijab law, but quickly expanded to calls for an end to clerical rule. By the time the demonstrations were quelled, more than 500 people had been killed and more than 22,000 arrested, according to a United Nations fact-checking mission.

Those defeats in the recent past have meant that even those who voted for the only reformist candidate in these elections have tempered their expectations.

Farzad Jafari, 36, who runs an agricultural export business, sat with four friends in a neighborhood cafe in a tree-lined square in Tehran’s upscale north on Saturday, the day after the vote. He said he barely bothered to vote.

Most people he knew were excluded from this round of the presidential race, he said, and of the four people who had had coffee with him, only Mr. Jafari and one of his friends had voted.

“I really didn’t want to vote because they excluded people who should have been in the running,” 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 make a change because, ultimately, all decisions are made by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader.

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

The fact that a reformist candidate had made it to the ballot seemed to energize Jafari and another man at the table and they soon set about deciding next steps. They talked about which candidate would win the votes of those no longer running, and how many Iranians who boycotted the first round might vote in the second.

The key question, however, is whether a potential runoff between a hardline conservative and a reformist will motivate reformist voters to go to the polls on July 5, including those who boycotted the first round. If so, it could be seen as a victory for the government, which sees participation in elections as a measure of the regime's legitimacy.

When the conversation turned to Friday's runoff and I asked whether those who hadn't voted in the first round would be able to vote in the second, three of them shook their heads no. Mr. Jafari looked pained.

“People have no hope,” he said, but then added: “But the fact is that that’s the only thing we can do, is hope.”

Similar sentiments prevailed in the square among four women who gathered before going shopping in the rich Tajrish bazaar, where saffron and cardamom, curtain fabrics, fine cotton scarves and designer bags are sold, along with pots and tubs of homemade yogurt.

The women’s politics, clothes and tone could not have been more different. Fatima, 40, a mother of three, wore a black chador. Sherveen, 52, a civil engineer, wore a fashionably tailored mustard-colored blouse and rust-colored pants. Her headscarf barely covered her head. A third woman wore elegant, loose-fitting linen pants and a thin white hijab draped over her shoulders.

Of the four women, two voted and two did not. All four asked to be referred to only by their first names for fear of reprisals at work or from family members.

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

But, he added, if the reformist candidate wins, “I will support him.”

Fatima found reassurance and stability in all the candidates approved by Iran's religious leadership, contrary to many Iranians, who saw such selection as a way to stop attempts to change Iran's clergy-dominated system.

Sherveen, by contrast, said he had lost all faith in the government and, like many educated and skilled Iranians, was considering leaving Iran. He is thinking of going to Canada, although not yet: his son was in his last year of high school. Her daughter is already in Toronto, as are many of her brothers.

“Unfortunately we don't trust anyone the government allows to run,” he said. “Everything is getting worse. Five or ten years ago it was better, but now we have less money, less freedom. Economy and freedom, these are the key.”

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