But when Abdolnasser Hemmati, the moderate in the race, showed up to vote, the sidewalk outside the polling station at the Hosseinieh Ershad religious institute crackled to life.
“Your views are useless for this country,” one heckler shouted at Hemmati, the former governor of Iran’s central bank, holding up his phone to immortalise the moment.
“You’re the hope of our nation,” a woman yelled to the candidate, trying to drown out the heckler.
Iran’s presidential race has been marked, more than anything else, by a lack of interest: Many voters said they would not bother to cast ballots in an election that they felt had been manipulated in favour of the hard-line conservative candidate, Ebrahim Raisi, Iran’s judiciary chief, who is close to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Iranian authorities under the ayatollah have gradually shaved down the country’s electoral freedoms for the past decade, to the point where there is almost no choice left. This year, any candidate who could pose a serious challenge to conservative rule was simply stricken from the ballot, leaving Raisi as the presumptive front-runner.
But to many Tehran residents, whether power was held by moderate pragmatists like the current president, Hassan Rouhani, or conservatives, the country had ended up the same way, with prices up, employment down and pessimism unavoidable.
The lines of voters at several polling sites across the capital on Friday were much shorter than in previous presidential elections, although the coronavirus pandemic and the smothering heat may have also affected turnout. The Iranian news media reported that as of 5 pm, voter participation was at 23%. Results are expected Saturday.
Beneath that listless surface, however, is a country churning with rage and hope, bitterness and faith.
Some of those who leaned liberal could not quite bear to shut themselves out of the vote, even as their friends or relatives boycotted it.
“We didn’t vote because of Hemmati himself,” said Milad, 34, a bank employee who came to the Hosseinieh Ershad polling station to vote for Hemmati. “We voted because we wanted to show the other side that there is still a voice of opposition in Iran. A weak voice of opposition is better than no voice at all.”
Like some other voters interviewed for this article, Milad refused to give his full name out of fear of retribution for speaking openly about politics.
Voters on each side agreed, broadly speaking, on the biggest issues facing the country: corruption, economic mismanagement and the US sanctions that are intensifying Iran’s economic misery.
But if the moderate opposition was divided over whether to vote, the conservatives who showed up to cast ballots were united behind Raisi and, more important, the Islamic government his candidacy stood for. Raisi’s campaign posters often featured him alongside Khamenei and Gen Qassem Soleimani, the Iranian commander whose death in a US airstrike last year brought crowds of mourners into the streets.
Many of those who turned out were Raisi supporters.
“Despite all the shortages and shortcomings, we love our nation, and we will defend it to the last drop of blood,” said Marziyeh Gorji, 34, who works in a government office and said she had voted for Raisi because of his ties to revolutionary figures and his experience. “The people are upset, I understand that. But not voting is not the solution.”
She motioned to her 5-year-old twin sons, who wore buttons featuring Soleimani’s face. “I will raise them to be like Gen. Soleimani,” she said.
At Lorzadeh mosque in south Tehran, in a poor and religiously conservative neighbourhood, Muhammad Ehsani, 61, a retired government employee, said his ballot was an expression of faith in the ideals of the Islamic Revolution that brought Iran’s current leadership to power.
Being a citizen was like riding a bus, he said. If things were not going well — as every voter agreed they were not — the problem was with the driver, not with the bus.
“What should we do?” he said. “It’s not logical to sit at home and not get on. It’s logical to get another company, another driver.”
Draped across the entrance of the mosque was a banner with a picture of Soleimani next to the words: “The Islamic Republic is considered a shrine. Those who are voting are defending the shrine.”
Voting is often portrayed as a patriotic and a religious duty in Iran, where the leadership often points to voter turnout as proof of the system’s legitimacy. Several voters proudly displayed national identification cards with stamps showing they had participated in elections going back decades.
A copy of the identification card, including the election stamps, is sometimes required for job applications, insurance paperwork and other day-to-day business.
The morning’s voting was marred by widespread reports of electronic voting systems malfunctioning and going offline from polling stations across Iran, according to Tasnim news agency, which is affiliated with Iran’s Revolutionary Guard. As polls opened Friday morning, many voters showed up to hear that they could not vote, and multiple polling stations had to delay their opening by more than an hour, Tasnim reported.
“This is an epidemic of ballot boxes malfunctioning now,” Kian Abdollahi, Tasnim’s editor-in-chief, said during a live election report on Clubhouse, the audio-only social media app. “This is unacceptable given concerns about low election turnout.”
Tehran’s governor said that there were technical problems with electronic voting systems at 79 polling stations across the capital.
It was not immediately clear what had caused the problems.
Outside the Hosseinieh Ershad polling station, Shabna, 40, a government employee who works in information technology, was alternately throwing her fist in the air as she chanted “I support Hemmati” and tugging her colourful head scarf, which was slipping amid all the excitement, back into place.
“We want to stop this engineered election,” she said. Hemmati, as an economist, was best qualified to turn the economy around, she said. A minute later, she was locked in an argument with a Hemmati critic.
But most voters interviewed on Friday did not seem to have such strong views about any particular candidate. They were there to vote because they always had, or because they believed in the system, or because, like Sadigheh Sarlak, 75, a retired teacher, they resented what they felt was foreign meddling in Iran.
“I voted only because I was so annoyed by the Americans and their media,” she said outside the polling station in Saadat Abad, a well-to-do area in north Tehran. She voted for Raisi.
Efat Rahmati, 54, a nurse, said it was strange that the Iranian authorities had excluded so many candidates from the race, a fact that many Iranians said had paved the way for Raisi to win. But she had still decided to vote, partly out of a personal liking for Raisi, and partly because the authorities “have more knowledge than me about this issue,” she said. “I think Raisi was better than the rest anyway.”
Maryam Afshani, 28, a pharmacist, had resolved to sit out the election, figuring that little had come from her voting in the previous two races. Then, at 6 pm Friday, she changed her mind, arriving at the polls in Saadat Abad an hour later to cast her ballot for Hemmati.
“I want a change,” she said. “And if I don’t participate, maybe I’m responsible.”
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