(NEW YORK) — Iran is holding its 13th presidential election on Friday, but many people in the country have said they will stay at home and refrain from voting as part of a no voting campaign.
“This election is a sham. They always have been, but I wasn’t aware of it even four years ago that I voted for Rouhani,” Amir, a 34-year old small business owner in Tehran, told ABC News. “This time, all I want to do on election day is stay at home with my family.”
Polls have predicted voter turnout between 37 to 47%, officials of the interior ministry said, according to the Iranian Students News Agency. This forecast is dramatically below the 2017 election, when turnout was over 73%.
This is not a coincidence but is part of a passive protest by the opposition movement calling for no voting. The online campaign has been going viral the hashtags #رای-بی-رای and #No2IR over the past few weeks as different voices expressed their reasons why they are not going to participate in the election, from economic problems, to the systematic oppression of any protest, etc.
“They say voting is the optimum outcome of democracy. But what we have here is not democracy. Here, voting is like giving you a jar of the best quality honey, saying you can only lick the jar from outside,” Amir, who didn’t want to reveal his full name due to security concerns, said. “Real democracy” is not reachable in the current situation of the country.
The two front runners are Abdolnaser Hemmati, former head of the Central Bank, who represents the moderates, and Ebrahim Raisi, current Chief Justice of the country, who has been endorsed by conservatives.
A high turnout matters to the top officials of the system as the Islamic Republic is going through one of the most troublesome periods both domestically and internationally. The people’s vote can, as the government sees it, help reinforce the credibility of the system and its representatives in the ongoing nuclear talks in Vienna with Germany, France, the United Kingdom, Russia, China and the United States. Iranian top nuclear negotiators have repeatedly referred to Rouhani’s 23 million votes as the public support of the system.
In his latest speech before the election, Islamic Republic’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, explicitly said that the system needs a high turnout in the election to boost its public support at any talks with its enemies.
“If we want to reduce and eliminate the economic pressures of the enemies, i.e., sanctions and other pressures, we must increase the turnout in the election and show public support of the regime to the enemies,” Khamenei said.
President Hassan Rouhani signed a multilateral nuclear deal with the six world powers in 2015 to restrain its nuclear program in exchange for easing sanctions on the country. This ushered in a thaw in relations with the U.S., but in 2018, former President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the agreement and subsequent re-imposition of sanctions meant that Iran suffered very significant economic fallout and Rouhani’s administration failed to fulfill its economic promises and there was a crippling economic downturn in the country.
However, many of the critics of the system believe that the major problem of the regime is not international sanctions, but rather its totalitarian dictatorship and widespread corruption that have left many people in poverty and crushes any objection with brutality.
“The main problem of the country is its totalitarian dictatorship identity that does not tolerate any criticism,” Hosein Ronaghi, a former political prisoner and current activist in the no voting campaign, told ABC News.
“By not casting a vote, we want to send this message to the international community that the Islamic Republic, which has shed the blood of our fellow men and women, is not our representative,” he added.
The brutal crackdown on nationwide protests in November 2019, when hundreds were killed and thousands arrested, is still an open wound to many Iranians.
Many are exacerbated after how few consequences there were after the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps shot two missiles at a Ukrainian plane last January, killing all passengers and crew members on board. Critics of the Iranian regime argue that this is symptomatic of the regime’s indifference to the consequences of actions taken in their name, whilst punishing those who challenge the politically conservative orthodoxy.
“Why should I vote when no one was held responsible for the bloodshed in Nov. 2019? Or no one felt responsible enough to at least resign after it was proved that IRGC itself had shot the passenger plane down,” Mahnaz, 45, a single mother who works as a nurse in Tehran and didn’t reveal her full name due to security concerns, told ABC News.
Ronaghi believes one of the messages that the NoVoting campaign has for the international community is to consider issues beyond politics and the Islamic Republic’s regional activities.
“We want the international community to pay more attention to other major issues of the country, including the human rights situation,” Ronaghi said
While considering human rights issues by the international community seems “essential” to Mahnaz, for any possible change in a system like the Islamic Republic, she believes for the changes to be “sustainable,” Iranians need structural changes from within and this election, many fear, will not do that.
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