Iran began voting Friday in a presidential election tipped in the favour of a hard-line protege of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, fueling public apathy and sparking calls for a boycott in the Islamic Republic.
While the race is wide open due to President Hassan Rouhani being term-limited from running again, authorities barred his allies and nearly every reformist from entering the race.
That has analysts believing hard-line judiciary chief Ebrahim Raisi is the clear front-runner. The only competitor who represents a stand-in for Rouhani's administration, the former Central Bank chief Abdolnasser Hemmati, has argued others in the race serve as proxies for Raisi and allow the cleric to avoid criticizing him directly.
State-linked opinion polling and analysts Raisi as the dominant front-runner in a field of just four candidates.
If elected, Raisi would be the first serving Iranian president sanctioned by the US government even before entering office over his involvement in the mass execution of political prisoners in 1988, as well as his time as the head of Iran's internationally criticized judiciary " one of the world's top executioners.
It also would firmly put hard-liners in control across the Iranian government as negotiations in Vienna continue over trying to save Tehran's tattered nuclear deal with world powers as it enriches uranium to the closest point yet to weapons-grade levels. Tensions remain high with both the US and Israel, which is believed to have carried out a series of attacks targeting Iranian nuclear sites and assassinating the scientist who created its military atomic programme decades earlier.
Polls opened at 7 am local time (IST 8 am) for the vote, which has seen widespread public apathy after a panel under Khamenei barred hundreds of candidates, including reformists and those aligned with Rouhani. Khamenei cast the ceremonial vote from Tehran, where he urged the public to take part.
"Through the participation of the people the country and the Islamic ruling system will win great points in the international arena, but the ones who benefit first are the people themselves," Khamenei said. "Go ahead, choose and vote."
State television also aired footage of a polling station set up by Soleimani's grave in the city of Kerman. Poll workers also wore gloves and masks due to the coronavirus pandemic, with some wiping ballot boxes with disinfectants.
The election winner will take over in August as Iran's eighth president from incumbent Hassan Rouhani, a moderate who has served the maximum of two consecutive four-year terms allowed under the constitution.
Results are expected around noon Saturday. If no clear winner emerges, a runoff will be held a week later.
Iran election in numbers
¢ More than 59 million eligible voters in Iran, a nation home to over 80 million people;
¢ Seven presidential candidates approved by Iran's Guardian Council to run out of 592 who registered, with three later dropping out;
¢ Zero women out of the 40 who registered to run for the presidency;
¢ An elected Iranian president gets a four-year term. One candidate can only serve for two terms in a row;
¢ 42 percent turnout projected by the state-linked Iranian Student Polling Agency, which would be a historic low amid a lack of enthusiasm by voters and the coronavirus pandemic;
¢ 73 percent turnout in Iran's last presidential election in 2017;
¢ Over 50 percent is the amount of the vote a front-runner must win in order to avoid a runoff election " and there's only been one runoff in 2005 since the 1979 Islamic Revolution;
¢ Six seats will be filled by voters for Iran's Assembly of Experts, which appoints the country's supreme leader;
¢ Six seats will be filled by voters for Iran's parliament; and
¢ Nearly 200,000 seats on city and local councils across the country also will be selected by voters.
Candidates in fray
Here's a look at the candidates competing.
Raisi, 60, is a hard-line cleric close to Khamenei who has vowed to combat poverty and corruption. Khamenei called Raisi a "trustworthy and highly experienced" person, causing many to wonder if he might also be a possible successor to the supreme leader himself.
He lost his 2017 presidential challenge to Rouhani, though he earned over 15 million votes in the contest. After the loss, Khamenei appointed the former law professor to be the head of the country's judiciary. There, he's waged a televised anti-corruption campaign that resonated with a public frustrated by graft.
His candidacy also has revived the controversy surrounding the 1988 mass execution of thousands in Iran, one of the darkest moments of Iran's post-revolution history still not recognized by its government. Raisi served on a panel involved in sentencing the prisoners to death. He hasn't commented publicly on the accusation.
Hemmati, 64, served for several years at the head of Iran's Central Bank under Rouhani and amid the renewed American sanctions that followed the US' unilateral withdrawal from Tehran's nuclear deal. Though serving in Rouhani's government, he's repeatedly described himself as an independent candidate.
Hemmati, an economics professor, has worked as the head of both private and government banks, as well as Iran's central insurance agency. He also once served as Iran's ambassador to China for a short period.
The technocrat has drawn attention for appointing his wife, Sepideh Shabestari, as one of his representatives and top advisers in Iran's short election season. He's a black belt in karate as well, something that drew the public's interest.
Hemmati has said his goals as president include decreasing poverty through better economic ties with the world, implementing a smaller government and getting the country off of the blacklist of the Financial Action Task Force, an international agency that monitors terrorism funding.
Amirhossein Ghazizadeh Hashemi
Hashemi, 50, is considered by analysts to be a low-profile conservative politician. He's served as a parliament member since 2007 and now is a member of the parliament's board of chairmen, which manages the legislature's affairs. An ear-nose-and-throat specialist surgeon by profession, Hashemi has vowed to restore Iran's stock market in the first three days in office, a tough goal as the market's value has nearly halved in the last year.
Rezaei, 66, is a former leader of Iran's paramilitary Revolutionary Guard and has been a hard-line candidate in several elections. He's wanted by Argentina on an Interpol "Red Notice" over his alleged involvement in the 1994 bombing on a Jewish center in Buenos Aires that killed 85 people. Both Rezaei and the Iranian government deny orchestrating the attack. He also faced criticism over allegedly mismanaging battles in the 1980s Iran-Iraq war and his tension with Iran's regular military. He serves now as the secretary of Expediency Council, which arbitrates disputes between parliament and Iran's constitutional watchdog, the Guardian Council. Rezaei also threatened in Iran's first presidential debate to imprison Hemmati.
What's at stake?
Iran's president oversees the civilian arm of the country's government. The president sets domestic policy, which is important as Iran has faced years of crushing sanctions from the US after then-President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew America from Tehran's nuclear deal. Those economic problems have seen nationwide protests twice in Rouhani's time in office. Iran also has faced wave after wave of new cases in the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. The presidency also sets the tone for how Iran interacts with the wider world. However, the winning candidate will be under Iran's supreme leader, who has final say on all matters of state.
Anticipations of low voter turnout
After a lacklustre campaign, turnout is expected to plummet to a new low in a country exhausted by a punishing regime of US economic sanctions that dashed hopes for a brighter future.
There are more than 59 million eligible voters in Iran, a nation home to over 80 million people. However, the state-linked Iranian Student Polling Agency has estimated a turnout of just 42 percent, which would be the lowest ever since the country's 1979 Islamic Revolution.
Fears about a low turnout have some warning Iran may be turning away from being the Islamic Republic " a government with elected civilian leadership overseen by a supreme leader from its Shiite clergy " to a country more tightly governed by its supreme leader. As supreme leader, Khamenei has the final say on all matters of state and oversees its defence and atomic program.
"This is not acceptable," said former President Mohammad Khatami, a reformist who sought to change its theocracy from inside during his eight years in office. "How would this conform to being a republic or Islamic?"
For his part, Khamenei warned of "foreign plots" seeking to depress turnout in a speech Wednesday. A flyer handed out Wednesday on the streets of Tehran by hard-liners followed in that thought, bearing the image of Revolutionary Guard Gen. Qassem Soleimani, who was killed in a US drone strike in 2020.
"If we do not vote: Sanctions will be heavier, the U.S. and Israel will be encouraged to attack Iran," the leaflet warned. "Iran will be under shadow of a Syrian-style civil war and the ground will be ready for the assassination of scientists and important figures."
But enthusiasm has been dampened by the disqualification of many candidates and the deep economic malaise which has sparked spiralling inflation and job losses, the crisis deepened by the Covid pandemic.
"I'm not a politician, I don't know anything about politics," a Tehran car mechanic who gave his name as Nasrollah told AFP. "I have no money. All families are now facing economic problems.
"How can we vote for these people who did this to us? It's not right."
Khamenei's influence on elections
Ultimate political power in Iran, since its 1979 revolution toppled the US-backed monarchy, rests with the supreme leader. But the president, as the top official of the state bureaucracy, also wields significant influence in fields from industrial policy to foreign affairs.
Out of an initial field of almost 600 hopefuls for the presidency, only seven -- all men -- were approved to run by the Guardian Council, a body of 12 clerics and jurists, which is closely aligned with Supreme Leader Khamenei.
Among the prominent figures disqualified were conservative former parliament speaker Ali Larijani and populist former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Then, two days before the election, three of the seven approved candidates dropped out of the race.
The only reformist still running is low-profile former central bank chief Abdolnaser Hemmati, who has promised to revive the economy and, unusually in Iran, heavily involved his wife in campaigning.
Yet the disqualification of candidates seemed aimed at preventing anyone other than Raisi from winning the election, as Khatami did in 1997 by surprisingly beating a hard-liner favoured by Khamenei. That's coupled with public anger for Rouhani, whose signature 2015 nuclear deal collapsed in 2018. Iran's already ailing economy has suffered since, with double-digit inflation and mass unemployment.
The vote "is set to be the least competitive election in the Islamic Republic's history," wrote Torbjorn Soltvedt, an analyst at the risk consultancy firm Verisk Maplecroft. "The election is heavily stacked in favour of candidates from the theocratic and hard-line end of Iran's political spectrum; there will be little need for the more overt forms of election fraud that characterized the turbulent re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2009."
Tehran blacksmith Abolfazl told AFP of his disappointment as a patriot who took part in the 1979 revolution. "I am over 60 years old, and in my youth I revolted against the shah of Iran," he said. "I took part in a revolution to choose for myself, not so others can choose for me. I love my country, but I do not accept these candidates."
The decision to limit participation comes as whoever wins likely will serve two four-year terms as nearly every Iranian president has since the revolution. That means they may be at the helm at what could be one of the most crucial moments for the country in decades " the death of the 82-year-old Khamenei.
Already, speculation has mounted that Raisi may be a contender for the position, as well as Khamenei's son, Mojtaba, who is believed to have close ties to Iran's paramilitary Revolutionary Guard.
With inputs from agencies