'Nothing will change': apathy and a lack of queues on election day in Iran

While some want to show solidarity with the supreme leader in face of US pressure, others feel their voice won’t be heard

At dawn, Dr Mostafa, a psychologist, went to pray at the Imamzadeh Saleh shrine in north Tehran before taking the short walk to be the first in line at the polling booth. So determined was he to do his religious duty and show his support for the supreme leader, that he voted in Friday’s parliamentary elections as soon as the polling booth opened at 8am. “We all have a duty to vote, if we want to be responsible citizens,” said Mostafa, who claims to have worked for the Iranian delegation in the Hague. Saying he had voted for the Conservatives, he added that he believed the US was “a liar”, insisting: “The parliament should never have believed American promises.”

But such enthusiasm for the parliamentary elections is likely to be the exception. By mid-afternoon there was just a smattering of people queuing to vote by the same mosque, while the nearby Tajrish bazaar was, in contrast, teeming. The mosque itself, too, seemed more attractive to mid-afternoon visitors than the chance to vote.

Some people recalled the queue at the same polling booth in the equivalent election five years ago snaking back half a kilometre.

Drawing conclusions about turnout from visiting a handful of polling stations is dangerous, and Tehran, along with Iran’s other big cities, may not be representative of the national mood. But the early signs on a chilly but sunny day were that huge numbers had decided to ignore Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s urgent call to send America a message and to show their support for the regime by turning out to vote.

At 3pm, the head of National Election Headquarters, Jamal Orfi, said around 11m votes had been cast up until then. This constitutes slightly less than 20% of all eligible voters. The Iranian authorities extended polling by two hours in a probable sign that they needed more time to urge people to vote to boost the flagging turn out.

Late on Friday, the government said it would delay announcing an initial turnout estimate until Saturday, after twice postponing the closure of the polling stations.

Official state TV claimed the polling stations were being kept open due to the high turnout across the country, but official figures earlier in the day suggested a relatively low turnout.

In Tehran the provincial governor said 9.6 million people were entitled to vote, but by noon only 700,000 had done so. Iranian journalists at polling stations claimed it could be a record low turnout. On Twitter shots of deserted polling stations proliferated.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei casting his ballot.
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei casting his ballot. Photograph: Iran’S Supreme Leader Office Handout/EPA

Those standing patiently in line at the polling station in Narmak district in east Tehran seemed determined to show their loyalty to the regime, and to punish the reformists for thinking a deal with the US was worth anything.

Around 40 men, predominantly conservatives, were waiting in line to vote at the entrance of the mosque. The women, in a much shorter queue, no more than a dozen, voted in a nursery school around the back. On the walls in alphabetical order a bewildering array of names were listed on posters, including many who had no chance of winning.

In Tehran more than 1,453 candidates have qualified for the seats reserved for the capital. Many voters brought handwritten notes with the names of their preferred candidates. Others brought coloured printed cards supporting the conservative list. For some it took as long as five minutes to write down the names and number of the candidates on their ballot form.

Habbibollah Azizi, a 65-year-old teacher, said: “We are voting today for justice and the independence of our country. Before the revolution this country was the puppet of the US embassy, but now we have stood up to the bullying and arrogance, and we are a proud nation.”

Referring to Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal agreed under the administration of Barack Obama, and the killing in January of Iran’s top general, he added: “The nuclear deal was a lesson for us that the big economic powers cannot be trusted and we should never face in their direction. We stood alone in the Iran-Iraq war because that was a global war again. In killing martyr Qassem Suleimani, Donald Trump has made a great mistake – through his actions he has put US troops in great danger for ever more.”

Nasrin Sameei, 20, said she was voting for two reasons: to support the supreme leader and because of Suleimani’s killing. “I know that even if my vote only has a tiny impact, it matters that I come – we have to show that we are a strong country,” she said.

Mohammed, a telecommunication engineer, added: “The reformists were too optimistic about the war and Donald Trump. The western media is involved in a soft war to weaken us. Our country is like a child, like a son or daughter that we must cherish and help to grow stronger. There have been so many gaps between what the reformists promise and do.”

Voters check the dizzying list of the candidates at a polling station in Tehran.
Voters check the dizzying list of the candidates at a polling station in Tehran. Photograph: Vahid Salemi/AP

Stepping away from the loyalist polling booths to the tree-lined Sa’ad Abad Complex in north Tehran is to enter a different country, and mindset.

Walking in the park with her husband and mother, a woman who gave her name as Mina said: “There is no ‘we’ in Iran. There is just ‘they’, the government, the 95%. We don’t exist as a voice. Why should we participate in an election for which nothing will change?”

Bijan, a 54-year-old restauranter from Neyshabur, says he comes to the park to soothe his anger about politics. “But every step I make I get more disappointed because our fathers made a huge mistake by starting the revolution of 1979. Why should we vote? I voted during the period of [former president] Khatami, but it seemed for no purpose. The mullahs may wear soft sandals, but they use them to suppress and kick us.”

Mariam, 35, a fitness instructor, said: “We have lost our freedom of expression, thought and voice. Five years ago with the money I earned I could afford two holidays abroad and now it is none.”

Asked about her view on the reformists, she answered: “Excuse me? What are they reforming? If you protest in this country you are shot, and they will not even tell you how many they have killed.”

It seems in Tehran there are two societies, and only one of them thinks today is election day.

Meanwhile, the nation was bracing itself for another hit to its sanctions-ravaged economy as the global anti-terror finance watchdog blacklisted Iran on Friday.

The Paris based Financial Action Task Force took the step following pressure from the US that Iran was failing to meet its promised commitments to make the economy less exposed to money laundering.

The move now has the backing of European countries. Iran was required last October to sign by February the Convention on the Financing of Terrorism (CFT) and the Convention on Transnational Organized Crime (Palermo). Iranian politicians have been split over the wisdom of the move but hardliner-run political bodies have rejected the move as western political interference.

In practical terms blacklisting will mean even fewer firms will want to trade with Iran, and it will be difficult for any Iranians including embassies to hold bank accounts abroad.

Although the governor of Iran’s central bank, Abdolnaser Hemmati, shrugged off the threat to the economy, rumours in Iran that FATF blacklisting was imminent led to a sharp fall in the rial’s value earlier this week.

Almost all western banks have already shut down their links with Iran due to the threat of US sanctions, and the US has imposed an effective ban on Iranian oil exports, the revenue lifeblood for the economy.


Patrick Wintour in Tehran

The GuardianTramp

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