Early Friday morning Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatullah Ali Khamenei launched the elections with a ceremonial display of civic duty. In front of a gathering of select Iranian and foreign media, this, the most recognized man in Iran, whose face adorns everything from billboards to hotel lobbies to shop windows across the country, flourished his ID card to receive his ballot. He pressed his index finger to a pad of indelible ink, wrote the names of his preferred candidates — city council elections are held in tandem with the presidential vote — into the blanks, and, to a cicada chorus of clicking camera shutters, dropped the ballots into sealed translucent boxes. Then he paused in front of the microphones set up for the occasion. Foreign governments wanted to sabotage Iran’s elections by encouraging people to stay away from the polls, he said. He had even heard that an American government official did not accept that Iran’s elections were democratic. “I say, to hell with you.” Then he exhorted his nation to vote, a sign of defiance for those who would undermine Iran.
In the weeks running up to the Iranian election—the first since the still-disputed 2009 election and its explosive aftermath—the country’s leadership has equated voting with patriotism. Khamenei, as the country’s most revered religious leader, has eschewed endorsing a candidate, but time and again he has urged people to the polls. “A vote for any of these candidates is a vote for the Islamic Republic. It’s a vote of confidence in the system,” he said at a rally on June 4. On June 12, he told the nation that a high turnout on Friday “would dash the enemies’ hopes.”
A low turnout, however, could just as easily undermine the government’s claim that Iran’s Islamic political system—a hybrid theocracy that pairs an elected president with a supreme religious leader who has the final say on all matters, secular and religious—is embraced by the people. There are some 50 million eligible voters in Iran, and while government officials and local media outlets boasted of high turnouts, there is no way to independently verify the numbers going to the polls. In rural areas, rumors spread that those who did not vote would see their subsidies cut. In the capital, however, most government officials linked voting with patriotic duty.
And people responded. By mid-morning polling stations across Tehran were busy. Voters waited in line patiently, more resigned than animated. Some had not even chosen their candidates by the time they picked up their ballots. “I have not yet decided,” said teacher Ghazia Moussavi, wrapped in the voluminous black chador of the extremely religious. “I will vote for whoever follows our Leader,” she said, meaning Khamenei. In other stations, small groups huddled together around their ballots, weighing their options before committing their collective decision to paper.
Six candidates are in the running, hand selected by Iran’s 12-person Guardian Council. The council, led by Khamenei, rejected hundreds of would-be candidates, including former president Hashemi Rafsanjani, who served two presidential terms from 1989-97. The council never made it clear why Rafsanjani was not eligible to run this time, but most voters seemed resigned to the council’s decision. “I am sure they had their reasons,” says 22-year-old university student Shayhan Sharif, before obliquely suggesting that Rafsanjani, a popular moderate, might have been deemed too much a threat for a leadership that has taken a conservative turn over the past eight years.
Of the six candidates, only one, Hassan Rouhani, is considered a moderate. The rest are conservatives, including the two front-runners, Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili and Mohammad-Baqer Qalibaf, Tehran’s current mayor. At polling stations conservative voters seemed equally divided between Qalibaf and Jalili, raising the possibility of a split vote and raising Rouhani’s chances. (If no candidate gets a majority, the vote will go to a runoff next week.)
But Rouhani faces a far more powerful competitor: voter apathy. Iran’s educated urban youth are still smarting from the fallout from the 2009 election, when their preferred candidate, the charismatic reformist Mir-Hossein Moussavi, lost to incumbent Mahmud Ahmadinejad. Many suspected fraud and millions took to the streets, only to face a brutal crackdown that saw scores killed and thousands detained and beaten. Four years on, many members of Moussavi’s so-called “green movement” say they will register their protest by not voting. “Why should I vote?” says 26-year old civil engineer Arash, who asked to go by one name given the sensitivity of his statements. “After what happened in 2009, I see no reason to trust the system. It is my duty for freedom to not vote in a semi-dictatorship. My vote will give it false legitimacy. This is not a democracy, so there is no point in voting.”
This is the kind of thinking that has kept Vandad Ahmadian, a 32-year-old cinematographer who volunteers for the Rouhani campaign, up at night. For the past two weeks he has stalked former Moussavi voters at birthday parties and restaurants and family gatherings to convince them to vote. “All these people who don’t want to vote, they are Rouhani’s natural constituency,” he says. If they don’t vote, it would mean that the conservatives win. “So we are telling them, don’t make a protest by not voting, make your protest by voting for Rouhani.” Iranians may argue whether this election is legitimate or not, but in the end their future still depends on the outcome, says Ahmadian. “It’s still better to make a choice, rather than have one made for you.”