Electoral turnout in Iran tests the frustrations and hopes of young people

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DUBAI – Like many young Iranians who yearn for democracy, Shirin does not believe that elected officials want to provide greater political and social freedoms, and he doubts that Iran’s ruling theocracy would allow them even if they tried.

The number of people who share his frustration can be seen in a vote on June 18, when Iran holds a presidential election seen as a referendum on the Islamic Republic’s handling of a series of political and economic crises.

Official polls suggest a record low turnout, a prospect that critics of the government attribute to economic difficulties and a lack of election at the polls for an overwhelmingly young population that is irritated by political restrictions.

Religiously devout and less well-off communities are expected to go to the polls and vote for the hard-line favorite, the strongly anti-Western Ebrahim Raisi, but young voters educated in towns and cities and some towns may well stay at home.

After a hardline electoral body banned moderate and conservative heavyweight candidates from running, young urban Iranians seem united only in their weariness with a dismal status quo.

“I want freedom, I want democracy. Iranian presidents have no authority and they don’t want to change our lives … So why should I vote?” Said 22-year-old French literature student Shirin from Tehran.

Like most of the young people interviewed for this story, Shirin declined to be identified by her full name due to the sensitivity of the electoral race.

Under Iran’s clerical system, the powers of the president-elect are confined to those of the hard-line supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in office since 1989.

The pragmatic President Hassan Rouhani won the presidency in 2013, bolstered by the support of many women and young people encouraged by his comments that Iranians deserve to live in a free country and have rights enjoyed by other people around the world.

But critics say Rouhani, who is not allowed to run for a third consecutive term, has not kept his promises.

“I am undecided. I have always believed in voting and I voted for the incumbent president in the last two elections,” said Sudabeh, a 28-year-old sales manager.

“But he couldn’t keep his promises.”

ECONOMIC MISERY

Hundreds of Iranians at home and abroad, including relatives of dissidents killed since the 1979 Iranian revolution, have called for an electoral boycott. The hashtag #NoToIslamicRepublic has been widely tweeted by Iranians in recent weeks.

Anger also lingers over the bloody crackdown on a series of street protests in recent years and the military downing of a Ukrainian airliner in 2020 in what Iranian authorities said was a mistake.

The seven candidates, five hardliners and two low-profile moderates, have been courting young voters in speeches and campaign messages and have used social media to reach 60% of the 85 million residents under the age of 30.

Khamenei, like many other officials, has hundreds of thousands of followers on Twitter and Instagram, although access to social media is officially blocked in Iran.

The ban upsets many young Iranians. Many avoid it by using virtual private networks, while insisting that social networks must be unblocked.

“Now that they need my vote to follow their own political agenda, they promise to unblock the ban on social media … I will not vote as long as my freedoms are restricted,” said 21-year-old university student Saharnaz from the northern city of Sari. .

Amid mounting anger over economic difficulties, the candidates have vowed to curb rampant inflation, create jobs and end the rapid decline in the value of the Iranian currency without detailing their plans.

Jamshid, 27, from the southern city of Ahvaz, was skeptical.

“No, no and no. I will not vote. I am jobless and hopeless. They get richer. Why should I vote in a system that is the source of my miserable life?” Jamshid said.

The economy, the authorities’ biggest challenge, is beset by mismanagement and US sanctions were reimposed after the US pulled out of the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran three years ago.

FAITHFUL VOTERS

The prices of basic products such as bread and rice are rising daily. Meat is too expensive for many, costing the equivalent of $ 40 per kilogram. The monthly minimum wage is about $ 215. The Iranian media regularly report on layoffs and strikes of workers who have been without pay for months.

Many voters concerned about basic issues said they would vote for Raisi, a Shiite cleric who has been a staunch advocate of Khamenei’s “resistance economy”, a project to increase self-sufficiency in Iranian manufacturing and services.

But taxi driver Alireza Dadvar supports the moderate and discreet former Central Bank chief Abdolnaser Hemmati.

“I don’t care about politics. I care about my family’s daily struggle … Hemmati is the only candidate who can fix the economy,” said Dadvar, 41, a father of three in Isfahan.

Appointed by Khamenei as head of the judiciary in 2019, favorite Raisi lost to Rouhani in the 2017 elections. He is counting on the poor Iranians to lead him to victory.

“Of course I will vote. It is my religious duty to vote and choose a president who is loyal to the revolution. My vote will be a slap in the face of our enemies,” said first-time voter Sajjad Akhbari of Tabriz, a city in the northern Iran.

(Written by Parisa Hafezi, Edited by William Maclean)