Millions of Iranians are choosing to stay at home rather than vote in Friday’s presidential election, in what represents an unprecedented expression of anger and frustration aimed at the country’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei.
Khamenei has the last say in all important state matters in Iran. Still, the presidential race has always been seen by Iranians as an important check on the otherwise total control religious leaders have over the country’s 80 million-strong population, forcing them to potentially share power with an international-facing leader who in Iran would be considered a moderate.
In the last presidential election in 2017, the turnout was as high as 73% in a highly contested race. This time around, however, all the “moderate” candidates were disqualified in May after being vetted by the 12-member Guardian Council, an election board made up of mullahs, leaving the race between only seven men. Three subsequently pulled out – leaving just four candidates, all favoured by the Ayatollah, who Iranians could actually vote for. The current Chief Justice of Iran, Ebrahim Raisi, who is known in Iran as a “principlist” or conservative, is now all-but certain to win.
Afraid of a low turnout, which would dent his legitimacy, Khamenei himself cast his vote early on Friday morning in Tehran and urged citizens to head to the polls, describing the race as a “major national test”. “This is important for the future of your country,” he said.
But weary of crippling international sanctions and the repressions of daily life in the country, this time, millions of people all over Iran are not buying it.
Younger voters appear to be especially apathetic about the ruling class’s ability to improve their lives. VICE World News talked to over a dozen Iranian youths via Signal on the eve of election day about the regime’s shortcomings. All preferred not to use their real names out of the very real fear of retribution for talking to foreign media.
“The candidates are racing to see who would kiss the Ayatollah’s ass better. Our nation is heading to starvation, and all these people are talking about is stupid ideological nonsense, which even their children find it super boring and irrelevant to the harsh reality we live in,” said a 29-year-old unemployed civil engineer from Tehran, who spoke via Signal.
“Alright, we got it, you are so revolutionary, but dude, the economy is shit, and who gives a fuck if we are winning some wars in Syria, Iraq, or Yemen against the Americans or the Saudis,” he added.
“This is not a race, but a fucking joke. Khamenei chose who he wants and went like, ‘You people can pick from who I like the most.’ I get that he wants all the power. Still, he has taken the Iranian people for fools, and that is not acceptable,” said a 30-year-old shopkeeper from Tehran.
Last year’s legislative general election also saw a historically low turnout of 42%, and only 40% of eligible voters are expected to go to the polls Friday to choose the new president.
Such a low level of engagement is a new and frightening threat for the regime: more than 40 years after the Islamic Revolution, Iran’s leaders are struggling to maintain their grip on a population ground down by economic troubles. Khamenei has blamed the international media for discouraging the Iranian people from voting.
“I was more enthusiastic about previous elections not because they could bring freedom and democracy to Iran, but there was at least a glimpse of hope, and there was a lot at stake. Now there is nothing left for people to say,” said a 28-year-old accountant from Tabriz.
“We are pretty far from an ideal free and fair election, but seriously the clergymen have made their point clear that they don’t care about us. Why should we bother to play their stupid game, they can have their stupid theatrical elections, and let’s see what they will do with it,” they said.
The economy is the other major sticking point for the country’s youth. The wave of sanctions introduced by US President Donald Trump after the US withdrew from Iran’s landmark nuclear deal with world powers sent inflation soaring to over 50% in April. Ongoing talks in Vienna between Iranian leaders and the EU and Joe Biden’s new US administration to restore the deal have steadied the fall of the rial – Iran’s currency – but for most Iranians, daily life is an ongoing struggle.
“Nothing is growing in Iran anymore because the mullahs have been poisoning our country for the last 40 years,” said a Persian literature graduate from Shiraz, referring to a famous Omar Khayyam poem about transience.
“They shouldn’t be surprised that people don’t want to engage in anything they offer for the people.”
Whether Iran’s millennials go to the voting booth or not, the likely new president is unlikely to change Iran’s current course.
Hassan Rouhani, the moderate incumbent president, is not eligible for a third term, and at any rate, he has largely disappointed the electorate after failing to fulfil his promises of reform.
Raisi, a 60-year-old cleric, is likely to win the presidential race in the first round without any serious competition. Raisi, like the Ayatollah, comes from the city of Mashhad. He was on a committee that ordered mass executions during his role as deputy prosecutor general of Tehran in the late 1980s and once advocated for total gender segregation. He could one day be the country’s supreme leader – Khamenei was Iran’s president between 1981 and 1989. Raisi claims to be descended from the Prophet Mohammed, a criterion that would make him eligible to replace Khamenei.
Raisi has promised to fight corruption and plans to take Iran even further away from the American sphere and towards Russia and China instead – although he is believed, like most of Iran’s clerical elite, to in reality tacitly support reinstating the nuclear deal.
For a 29-year-old voter, it’s a problem for another day: he is planning to go for a picnic with friends outside the city on election day.
“We are getting away from all the mess, although the only thing we can afford to take to eat is two kilos of potatoes, some spring onions, and a couple of tomatoes,” he said.
“There will be a lot of staged crowded polling stations, but they are not fooling anyone this time. No one gives a fuck about these elections anymore.”