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Iran election 2021: Voting underway in poll all but guaranteed to deliver hardline president

Iran election 2021: Voting underway in poll all but guaranteed to deliver hardline president

The virtually unchallenged favorite is Ebrahim Raisi, the ultra-conservative justice chief, currently under US sanctions. His only non-conservative electoral rival is Abdolnaser Hemmati, a former central bank governor who runs on a moderate platform.

There were signs on Friday afternoon that voter turnout would be lower than expected by conservative religious leaders across the country, as many moderate voters snubbed a poll seen by many as inevitable. Polls ahead of the elections predicted the turnout could drop below 50% for the first time since the founding of the Islamic Republic in 1979.

“Every vote counts (…) come and vote and choose your president (…) it is important for the future of your country”, declared the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, after having expressed the first vote on Friday morning. “A low turnout will increase pressure from enemies.”

Raisi became the frontrunner after an election watchdog known as the Guardian Council excluded his main rivals from the race. The move was widely criticized, even by Khamenei, who called some of the disqualifications “unfair”.

Raisi’s expected victory would come at a pivotal moment for Iran. The next government will face an economic crisis exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic and calls for constitutional reform. Tehran is also currently engaged in negotiations with the United States on how to revive the 2015 nuclear deal.

The succession plans for Khamenei, 81, are also raising more and more questions. Whoever wins the presidential election, in the Iranian political system, it is the Supreme Leader who ultimately decides all major state matters. Analysts said Raisi’s victory in Friday’s presidential election could pave the way for him to become the next Supreme Leader.

“It is the people’s right to be upset and maybe some have been upset by the current situation, but I ask all Iranians to go to the polls to resolve the issues,” Raisi tweeted after voting Friday.

“I hope that people will soon feel the change … I consider myself a servant of all the Iranian people,” Raisi also said, according to the semi-official Iranian news agency Tasnim.

Iran's hard-line presidential favorite could take the country back to a dark past, just as Iranians are eager to change
Raisi is a close associate of the Supreme Leader with a brutal human rights record who for decades has played a leading role in the prosecution of political prisoners in Iran.

In 1988, Raisi was part of a four-person death committee that oversaw the execution of up to 5,000 political prisoners, many of whom were later buried in anonymous graves, according to rights groups.

Raisi has never commented on the allegations, but it is widely believed that he rarely leaves Iran for fear of retaliation or international justice for the executions.

A few months after Khamenei appointed Raisi judicial chief in 2019, the United States sanctioned him for his role in the 1988 executions and for his involvement in cracking down on the 2009 Green Movement anti-government protests.

Activists call for boycott

Polling stations appeared to be largely filled with conservative voters on Friday, many of whom carried posters of Qasem Soleimani, Iran’s top military commander killed in Baghdad last year on the orders of former US President Donald Trump.

But many Iranians appeared to stay away from the polls, dismayed at what they see as an election heavily designed to further strengthen the power of the country’s radical religious leaders, despite public calls for reform. In the past few days, three candidates have dropped out of the race, including two Tories who were apparently trying to increase Raisi’s chances even further.

On social media, activists called on people to boycott the vote. “I will not vote. I do not think it is very effective for the situation in the country,” said a 22-year-old man before the elections. “We may already know what’s going to happen.”

“The government itself has already selected [the president]. It’s the truth, “said a disgruntled middle-aged man.” We’re in a bad spot. We must choose only the one they have chosen for us. ”

All Iranians who criticized the elections in interviews with CNN have asked not to be named for security reasons.

A mother and her children, dressed in Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps' uniforms, line up at a polling station on Friday.

Iran’s National Security Council chief Ali Shamkhani on Friday accused the Trump administration of “discouraging” Iranian voters with its so-called maximum pressure campaign on Tehran. Trump withdrew the United States from the nuclear deal with Iran in 2018 and triggered crushing sanctions against the Iranian economy.

Government fears over voter apathy appeared to prompt Khamenei to issue a last-minute appeal to the electorate on Thursday, warning that low turnout would play into Iran’s “enemies” and destabilize the country. Previously, Khamenei had warned that white votes would be considered a “sin”.

But in the days leading up to the poll, election posters were scarce, campaign centers were largely empty, and the mood grim.

“I don’t care about the elections. Who is supposed to take care of us? his economic problems, especially his inability to provide the necessary medicines for his sick son.

“The worst thing that can happen to me because of my objections is that I get arrested and killed,” she said. “But it’s better than watching my son die of illness.”

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