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Iranians vote in election all but guaranteed to deliver an ultra-conservative president

By CNN staff

Polls opened Friday in Iran for a controversial election that is all but guaranteed to deliver a hardline president after all the other serious contenders were barred from the race.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei cast the first ballot and exhorted Iranians to head to the polls, amid fears among the country’s clerical rulers that the lack of choices could lead to low turnout.

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei cast the first ballot in Iran, signaling the opening of polls.

“Each vote counts … come and vote and choose your president … this is important for the future of your country,” Khamenei said after casting his vote. “Low turnout will increase the pressure of the enemies.”

The practically uncontested frontrunner is Ebrahim Raisi, a close associate of Khamenei who lost the 2017 election and has headed the country’s judiciary for the last two years.

Raisi emerged as the frontrunner after an election supervisory body known as the Guardian Council barred his main rivals from the race. The move was widely criticized, even by Khamenei, who called some of the disqualifications “unjust.”

Raisi’s expected win would come at a pivotal moment for Iran. The next government will have to confront an economic crisis exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic, calls for constitutional reform and growing questions around the succession plans for Khamenei, 81, who is the final arbiter of all Iranian affairs. Tehran is also currently locked in negotiations with the United States about how to revive the 2015 nuclear deal.

“It’s the right of the people to be upset and perhaps some have been upset by the current situation, but I’m asking all of the Iranian people to come to the polls to solve the problems,” Raisi wrote in a tweet.

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

A largely conservative turnout

Across Iran, queues snaked outside of polling stations, consisting largely of conservative voters. Many carried posters of Iran’s slain top general Qasem Soleimani, killed in Baghdad last year on orders from former President Donald Trump.

But many in Iran have also expressed dismay over what they see as a heavily engineered election. Some people object to what is being perceived as an attempt by Iran’s clerical rulers to further entrench their power, despite the public’s calls for reforms. “I won’t be voting. I don’t think it’s very effective to the situation of the country,” said one 22-year-old man. “It’s possible that we already know what’s going to happen.” All of the Iranians who criticized the election in interviews with CNN asked not to be named for security reasons.

The young man was sitting on a bench in Tehran’s bustling Valiasr square. Towering over the scene is a massive billboard depicting people from different parts of Iranian society, their fingertips covered in the purple ink to indicate that they voted.

“For Iran, we stand in the voting queue,” the poster reads. Down at street level, it’s a different story.

Most national polls show that Iran’s presidential election may see less than 50% turnout for the first time since the establishment of the Islamic Republic in 1979. Fears in the government over voter apathy appeared to spur Khamenei to make a last-minute plea to the electorate on Thursday, warning that poor turnout would play into the hands of Iran’s “enemies” and destabilize the country.

“Enemies seek to undermine participation of people in elections to weaken Iran,” Khamenei said in a televised speech.

“If there is less participation and if the country is weakened then they can cause insecurity in the country…if we have less participation by the people we will have more pressures exerted by our foes…economic pressures,” the leader added.

“The solution is to increase people’s participation and show the enemy that people are participating.”

Previously, Khamenei warned that blank votes would be considered a “sin.”

An uncompetitive election

Over the last few days, three candidates have dropped out of the race, two of them conservatives who are apparently trying to further boost Raisi’s chances. Major reformist and centrist politicians were disqualified from running last month.

“I’m not going to vote because I believe there is no appropriate person to choose as a candidate,” said one 32-year-old student.

“Maybe I would have voted if there were different candidates,” said another young man.

“The government themselves have already selected [the president]. This is the truth,” said one disgruntled middle-aged man. “We are in a bad situation. We have to choose only the one they have chosen for us.”

“And we know him. We know him,” he added, referring to Raisi, who for decades has played in a leading role in the prosecution of political prisoners in Iran.

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

Raisi has never commented on these allegations, but it’s widely believed that he rarely leaves Iran for fear of retribution or international justice over the executions.

Raisi’s only non-conservative election rival is Abdolnaser Hemmati, a former central bank governor running on a moderate platform. He’s seen by some as a dark horse candidate. Though he is polling in the single digits, he claims that his candidacy has boosted the projected turnout.

“After my entering the election I am seeing that the percentage of those who want to take part is increasing,” Hemmati said in an interview with CNN. “The message of the people is that they have no power and I am coming to say that I can be their power.”

Meanwhile, at Raisi’s campaign headquarters in Tehran, a looping video showing the soft-spoken cleric conversing with young people has been projected onto a garage door. A handful of conservative youth shuttle in and out of the building.

Hossein Bahman Abadi, Raisi’s campaign manager, berates the Western world for “lying” about voter turnout.

“Who says people won’t participate? People will participate,” Abadi told CNN. “This is the slogan of foreign media who are suggesting that people aren’t taking part.”

But in the days leading up to the election,, election posters were sparse, campaign centers were largely empty and the mood was somber. On social media, activists called on people to stay home on Friday. One young man told us he intends to play video games on election day.

“I don’t care about elections. Who is meant to take care of us? Rouhani … Khamenei? They’re passing us from one person to another like a basketball,” said one woman. Her voice fraught with emotion, she explained a litany of her economic troubles, including being unable to provide the medication needed for her sick son.

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

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