Iran elections 2021: Iranians cite apathy and anger as they stay home in protest

Streets of Tehran are quiet as people stay away from polling stations

Voting to elect Iran's next president began on Friday with another plea for participation from its supreme leader, but most Iranians seem intent on playing no part in the process

From nail technicians to labourers and academics, the young and the old, voters across socio-economic boundaries and class divisions speak of deep-seated apathy and disillusionment with promises of change.

According to a poll conducted just a few hours before the vote by the Iranian Students Polling Association, only 44 per cent of eligible voters planned to cast a ballot.

"We won't participate in the lie any more. We won't help them save face and give them legitimacy," a woman in Tehran, who asked to remain anonymous, told The National.

Her sentiments were echoed by other eligible voters and reflected in the photos showing a sparse turn-out in the Iranian capital on Friday morning.

"High turn-out means legitimacy for the regime and their circus election," said another Tehran resident.

An Iranian woman casts her vote during presidential elections at a polling station in Tehran, Iran June 18, 2021. Majid Asgaripour/WANA (West Asia News Agency) via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY.

Iran's Guardian Council, which vets electoral candidates, approved only seven out of hundreds of applications. The field of conservatives and hardliners narrowed further after three of the candidates withdrew.

Iran's rulers have traditionally urged citizens to vote, linking their legitimacy to the expression of the will of the people. This time, however, with the economy at a low point and many Iranians, hungry and jobless in the middle of the Middle East's biggest outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic say they have had enough. More than four decades with little change, and the brutal suppression of protests that left hundreds dead, have drained much of people's energy.

"I don't even think people will protest this time around. No one has the energy to take to the streets," said Parisa, a student in Tehran who said that she and most of her friends would not be voting.

"We keep voting and there is no change. If we vote for a reformer, their hands are tied and they can't do anything, it all stays the same. If we vote in a hardliner things get more repressive, but at least they are on the same page as Khamenei," she said, referring to Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the final say on all matters of state.

Nina, an Iranian living in Europe, said her family usually voted in every election but they would be sitting this one out. "We haven't seen any changes, so what's the point of voting?"

But voters leaving the polling station at the Iranian consulate in Dubai said they felt it was important to take part in the election, calling it a privilege, even if it had its issues.

Many of those who spoke to The National voted in the previous presidential election, which had high voter turn-out and gave President Hassan Rouhani a second term with a landslide victory.

The difference between June 2017 and this year is stark. Polling stations in 2017 were packed, with voters queuing for hours to vote, in Iran and abroad. This year, there is little evidence in the capital that an election is in progress. As one voter said:  "People don't even know it's election day when you speak to them."

The hope voters had in 2017 has largely been replaced with apathy. A young man in Tehran who voted for Mr Rouhani in the last election said that while deciding whether to vote or not this time, what came to mind were the protests in December 2017 and November 2019 that left hundreds dead, the effect of US sanctions and the shooting down of a Ukrainian passenger plane over Tehran last year and its cover-up.

He says he decided to not vote for those reasons and because the past few years had shown that "ultimately the IRGC is in charge of policymaking when it comes to major issues".

After four years of economic sanctions, widespread corruption, one of the world's highest Covid-19 death tolls and rising poverty, Iranians are exhausted.

Mariam, a boutique owner in an affluent neighbourhood in Tehran said the effort it took to get through each day left little energy for anything else.

"We are tired of trying to just make it day to day. We are tired of being told lies. We are just tired."