Iranian voters head to the polls on June 18 to choose their next president in an election many believe has already been determined by the strict vetting of candidates.
The vote comes amid rising anger over the poor state of an economy devastated by U.S. sanctions, state mismanagement, and the coronavirus pandemic.
Ebrahim Raisi, a 60-year-old hard-line cleric and head of the judiciary, is widely expected to replace President Hassan Rohani, who after two terms in office is ineligible to run.
Raisi was one of the Iranian judges in 1988 who oversaw a series of speedy trials in which thousands of political prisoners were sentenced to death and executed. Human rights organizations say he is guilty of crimes against humanity.
Iran’s powerful vetting body, the Guardians Council, has prevented prominent moderate candidates from running.
Raisi’s main challenger and the only moderate in the race is Abdolnaser Hemmati.
He served as Iran’s central bank chief before he was dismissed in order to run for president.
The 64-year-old Hemmati has gained some traction in his campaign in recent days by criticizing state restrictions and reaching out to reform-minded Iranians.
But Hemmati, a technocrat, still lags behind, with public opinion polls suggesting his support is in the single digits.
Major reformist groups have not endorsed Hemmati’s campaign.
Two of Raisi’s hard-line challengers, former nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili and lawmaker Alireza Zakani, dropped out of the race on June 16 — the final day of the election campaign. Both urged their supporters to vote for Raisi.
A low-key reformist, former Vice President for Sports Mohsen Mehralizadeh, also withdrew from the election on June 16.
Two other hard-liners, Mohsen Rezai, a former commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), and Amir Hossein Ghazizadeh Hashemi, who served as parliament’s first deputy speaker, remain in the race.
The vote could produce the country’s lowest ever turnout, an eventuality that would cast further doubts over the popular legitimacy of the outcome.
A poll conducted by the Iranian Student Polling Agency suggests that only 42 percent of the country’s 59 million voters will cast ballots. Turnout in 2017 for the last presidential election was 73 percent.
Many Iranians have said they will not be voting due to severely restricted choices. They also sited frustration over the economy, state repression, and disillusionment with politicians who have failed to bring change.
“They’re offering five bananas, saying ‘Choose any fruit you want,'” one Iranian man complained during a recent open tribune in the central city of Isfahan. “How can you pick an orange from five bananas?”
“This time around, Iranians don’t want to react to whatever the establishment is doing and the games it is playing,” U.S.-based Iranian activist Mahdieh Golroo told RFE/RL’s Radio Farda.
If no candidate wins an overall majority on June 18, the two with the most votes will go head-to-head in a second-round runoff.
Iran’s Interior Ministry, which is in charge of running the election, say polls are due to open at 7 a.m. local time and will close at midnight.
Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli acknowledged this week that turnout “may be lower compared to previous elections.”
“A weakness in competition is one reason and the coronavirus situation another,” he told journalists on June 16.
Iran’s highest authority, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has encouraged Iranians to vote while lashing out against the country’s “enemies” for discouraging people from taking part in the election.
Khamenei has accused “American and British media” and what he calls “their mercenaries” of “killing themselves to question the elections and weaken popular participation.”
“It’s been several months now that U.S. and British media are trying hard to decrease people’s turnout at the ballot boxes. Of course, experience has proven that people act against what the enemy seeks. This will be the case this time too, God willing,” Khamenei said, according to his Twitter account.
The vote comes amid talks in Vienna aimed at reviving Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers.
Former U.S. President Donald Trump exited the agreement and reimposed crippling U.S. sanctions on Iran. President Joe Biden has promised to rejoin the agreement if Iran returns to full compliance.
Raisi has promised he would be committed to the deal — which offers sanctions relief in exchange for significant restrictions on Iran’s nuclear activities.