After experiencing economic difficulties in recent years due to sanctions imposed by the United States, which are added to the pain of the loss of a national hero, General Qassim Suleimani, and the impact of the Covid pandemic , Iran goes to the polls this Friday (18) to choose a new president.
However, Iranians do not seem to see the elections as a path to better times and so there is a prospect of record abstention, especially among moderate and reformist voters, which should allow extremists to return to power.
This Friday’s elections – the equivalent of Sunday for the Western world – were once again marked by the veto of candidates by the Council of Guardians, heavily influenced by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the country’s top official.
Important names were banned, such as popular former legislative president Ali Larijani, controversial ex-president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and one of the current vice-presidents, Eshaq Jahangiri, who was the candidate of current president Hasan Rowhani.
This combination of popular disillusion and cleansing of candidates has reinforced the campaign of ultra-conservative Ebrahim Raisi, the current Iranian justice chief, a politician very close to Khamenei and with a history of suppressing opponents.
Raisi appears in the polls with around 55% of the vote, while his opponents are still below the 10% line.
Moreover, as head of the judiciary, it is Raisi who names half of the names of the Council of Guardians, which analyzes the applications.
His opponents in the election are moderate and former Central Bank chairman Abdolnaser Hemmati, ultra-conservative and former Revolutionary Guard commander Mohsen Rezaei, and ultra-conservative MP Amir Hossein Hashemi.
The climate of the current presidential elections is very different from that experienced during the last election, in 2017, which led to Rowhani’s re-election.
Iran has enjoyed the benefits of the nuclear deal signed with the United States and other powers, which has opened the country to foreign investment and society to new customs.
Tehran’s malls were filled with Western brands, construction sites dotted the capital, and activists fought harder against standards that suppressed women’s freedom, such as a ban on watching football matches in stadiums.
The country, however, began to face a serious economic crisis after the imposition of sanctions by the United States, which left the nuclear deal. Rowhani and the sponsors of the deal were then challenged.
In January 2020, the Americans also assassinated the popular Iranian General Suleimani, commander of the elite Revolutionary Guard force in Iraq, exacerbating conservative and anti-Western sentiment among the more religious sections of the population.
The most moderate and reformist were still silenced when the street protests of 2019 and 2020 were harshly suppressed by the security forces.
“The United States and the West, with their poor record of defying the nuclear deal, their resistance to the lifting of sanctions and their relations with Iran, and the assassination of the beloved General Suleimani, have a great impact on the choice of Iranians in this election, “said Iranian political scientist Mostafa Khoshcheshm, considered close to the regime.
“This is why Mr Raisi appears in all the latest polls with a big advantage. And this is why the reformers, who believe in a policy of detente with the United States, have lost ground in Iranian politics,” he said.
Also unlike in previous elections, residents of Tehran report that the movement is calmer than usual. The proximity of the elections is noticeable with the posters with the faces of the candidates stuck to the posts, but with few activists or debates in the streets.
“The streets are super quiet, like a normal day here. There is no unusual movement, no protests,” said Brazilian Elisangela Camargo, who has lived in Iran for 16 years and is married to an Iranian.
Polls also show that there could be a turnout of around 40% of the total number of eligible voters, well below the 73% recorded in 2017.
In recent days, Iranian officials and personalities have campaigned to encourage the vote.
Ayatollah Khamenei said in a speech that “voting is the solution to Iran’s problems”. Even General Suleimani’s family asked people to attend.
There are fears that too low a turnout could undermine the credibility of the Iranian regime.
“A very low turnout, less than 40%, would represent a major boycott and give confidence to the part of the Iranian population that wants a change of system. The Iranian regime would be more fragile in the face of internal and external pressures, ”said Iranian dissident Ammar Maleki, professor at Tilburg University in the Netherlands.
Analysts therefore predict that disillusionment with the political system will not represent resignation to the situation, but political activism that circumvents the electoral system. Street protests, especially by students, could become more frequent – and it is doubtful whether they will be suppressed with the same intensity as in recent years.
The favorite Raisi has a past marked by repression, in his career in the judiciary.
In the 1980s, during the phase of persecution and murder that followed the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the then judge allegedly authorized numerous murders and tortures, according to complaints from dissidents.
Externally, the prospect of the return of the hard line to power automatically puts on alert for an even more conflictual relationship with the West, this at a time of a potential opening with the United States, due to the election of Joe Biden, according to the reading of Western politicians and analysts.
On the other hand, others are of the opinion that Iran, even under Raisi, will adopt a pragmatic and negotiating foreign policy, albeit out of necessity. Indeed, the country seeks to end the sanctions to overcome the economic difficulties.
“I’m not sure Raisi’s victory means international isolation. He is not expected to take a radical tone in foreign policy, as many believe that Raisi needs the nuclear deal to survive or resuscitate “, declared Luciano Zaccara, expert in foreign policy. Iranian issues and professor at the University of Qatar.
However, the unilateral withdrawal from the nuclear deal has generated mistrust and there is a feeling in Iranian society that the resumption of commitments depends exclusively on the United States, as long as they do not present new conditions.
“There won’t be a new nuclear deal, because there is only one. It doesn’t matter who wins the election, what matters is the JCPOA [sigla do acordo]. The Iranians will not make any concessions. The Americans must come back to the agreement and implement it fully, ”said Mohammad Marandí, political scientist and professor at the University of Tehran.