Economic fears dominate the minds of Iranian voters

Few in Iran, it would seem, really believe that their vote will make a difference to the daily grind of life, writes Majid Rafizadeh

A supporter of Hassan Rouhani flashes victory sign during an election camping rally in Tehran. Abedin Taherkenareh / EPA
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Iran’s 12th presidential election is less than two weeks away. Unfortunately, many mainstream media outlets and analysts take a top-down approach to examine Iran’s elections. They focus on the clichés, such as who is the favourite candidate of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and will a moderate win rather than a hardliner?

Little attention has been given to what the ordinary people of Iran feel about the elections and how they will vote on May 19.

The International American Council on the Middle East and North Africa interviewed 1,069 Iranians in 15 Iranian provinces, including Tehran, Gilan, Isfahan, Shiraz and Khorasan. The participants were selected randomly and interviews were carried out over the phone, Skype or by a questionnaire.

In general, the poll showed a lack of interest, indifference, passivity, detachment and disaffectedness to the presidential elections. Many Iranians viewed the ballot as little more than a charade.

“The government is running the show. All the candidates are the same. They think about their pocket, power and the political establishment, not about the people.

“Here, people mock the election. This game happens every four years and our situation gets worse. It won’t make a difference. We just continue with our lives, trying to make ends meet, and see how things go,” said Anahita, a mother of two, who graduated from a master's programme two years ago, but is still searching for a job.

The Islamic Republican Guard Corps and Mr Khamenei have significant power in the election process as candidates are selected by the Guardian Council.

We also asked survey participants whether the result of the election would change their life economically, socially or politically. An overwhelming majority, 79 per cent, said the result would have no impact on their circumstances.

Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s incumbent president, said that he would improve the economy and advance social and political freedoms when he was elected in 2013.

Nevertheless, after sanctions were lifted, unemployment and inflation remain at record highs. The major beneficiaries of the sanctions relief appear to be the IRGC and Mr Khamenei.

Over a period of almost four decades, people appear to have hardened in their belief that figures such as Mr Rouhani, the reformist Mohammed Khatami, who was president for eight years from 1997, or any other leader for that matter will not improve the fortunes of the average Iranian.

The majority of participants, 53 per cent, did say, however, they would vote, but if many people were aware that presidents would not bring about fundamental changes, why would some still vote?

There were several underlying reasons for this.

When those who intended to vote were asked who they would cast their ballot for, almost one in five (19 per cent) stated that they would cast a “white vote”.

The notion of a “white vote” or putting a blank piece of paper in the ballot box, has become an increasingly popular method in Iran to protest against the presidential elections or the political system.

Nevertheless, “white votes” can bring advantages to the ruling elite. Voter turnout is critical for the Iranian government because it gives Tehran the opportunity to boast about the legitimacy and popularity of its political system, as well as a robust social base.

The Iranian government reports the number of the votes, not the nature of the votes whether they are spoilt.

Mr Khamenei has urged people to vote, and the Iranian government normally eases social and political restrictions on people for a few weeks before the elections in order to motivate people to vote.

Many hold the belief that the government proportionately increases the numbers of each candidate’s votes by millions in order to project a higher voter turnout. Official figures show a 72.7 per cent turnout four years ago. Around 50m people were eligible to vote in 2013.

In addition, some voters mentioned that they feared the country would descend into chaos like Syria or Iraq.

The Iranian government has used fearmongering tactics, such as exaggerating the role of ISIL in Iran and wars abroad, in order to draw support for its military and silence its people. Furthermore, some voters have government jobs. Even if they may privately oppose the political establishment, they will vote for job security.

Finally, one of the resounding answers was to a question about whether the election was a choice between “bad and worse” or a ballot between Mr Rouhani and Ibrahim Raisi, Iran’s former attorney-general. Mr Rouhani appeared to be the favoured choice but few viewed him as an ideal candidate.

One voter told me that “everything is getting more expensive. Corruption is higher. The [government] plays us with labels such as hardliner and moderates because it want us to go out and vote. It wants to make us feel we have power to choose our destiny and fate”.

Few in Iran, it would seem, really believe that their vote will make a difference to the daily grind of life.

Dr Majid Rafizadeh is an Iranian-American political scientist and president of the International American Council