In a soft pleading voice, the white-haired woman in the video implores, “For the sake of my son, Pouya Bakhtiari, don’t vote.” She holds the young man’s photo, and continues, “Because of the bullet they shot at his head and shattered his dreams, don’t vote.” In a second video, another mother, sitting next to a gravestone, echoed the same message: “At 30, my son lies under a huge pile of dirt.” A third woman described her 18-year-old son as full of hope, until Nov. 17, 2019, when a bullet pierced his heart.
“Voting means betrayal,” she added.
Videos like these, circulating on Iranian activists’ social media accounts with the hashtag that in Persian means #notovoting, have been appearing in increasing numbers in the weeks and months leading up to Iran’s presidential election on Friday. Some of the videos have been made by parents who say their children were shot dead during antigovernment protests over the last few years. Others are by the parents of political prisoners who were executed by the regime in the 1980s, as well as by the families of those who died in the Ukrainian passenger plane that crashed last year shortly after takeoff from Tehran. (Iran’s military said it mistakenly shot down the plane).
What’s remarkable about the videos is their audacity: that Iranians are speaking up, seemingly without fear, about boycotting an election in an authoritarian country whose leaders rarely tolerate open displays of dissent. Iranians have had enough. And besides, what’s the point of voting when the result is predetermined?
The call for an election boycott seems to be resonating: a recent poll by the state-run Iranian Student Polling Agency predicts that turnout will be as low as 40 percent — the lowest since the 1979 revolution.
A low turnout in Friday’s election would certainly signal a rejection of the Islamic regime. But not voting will also give the regime exactly what it wants: a near-certain assurance that its handpicked candidate, Ebrahim Raisi, a cleric who is close to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, will win.
Of course, the regime has done its part as well for Mr. Raisi. Last month, the Guardian Council, the body that vets election candidates, rejected all the potential candidates except for Mr. Raisi and six relatively unknown figures.
Even insiders to the regime were reportedly stunned that the council had gone so far as to bar a current vice president, Eshaq Jahangiri, and a former speaker of Parliament, Ali Larijani.
To be sure, the Guardian Council has rejected other presidential hopefuls over the past four decades. But this time it’s especially significant because the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is 82, which raises the issue of succession. Hard-liners within the Revolutionary Guards are grooming Mr. Raisi to take his place, making his election into office even more important. The ayatollah’s support for Mr. Raisi is no secret. After Mr. Raisi failed a bid for the presidency in 2017, Ayatollah Khamenei made him head of the judiciary two years later.
The tightly controlled process has led many Iranians to question the entire exercise. And institutions such as the Guardian Council, which is controlled by Ayatollah Khamenei, has stymied any democratic change and crippled the efforts of presidents who have tried to introduce political and social freedoms. (Two presidential candidates during the 2009 race, Mehdi Karroubi and the former Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi, who campaigned on a platform of delivering democratic reforms, remain under house arrest. The regime at the time suppressed massive protests in the aftermath of what was seen as a widely disputed election.)
The campaign to boycott the election highlights the rising levels of both anger and apathy toward the regime, at a time when the economy has been suffering under the weight of U.S. sanctions, as well as mismanagement and corruption by Iranian officials. The government also badly botched the Covid-19 pandemic, leaving more than 82,000 dead so far. In addition, the regime has brutally cracked down on protests that have erupted since 2009, mostly over worsening economic conditions.
Those boycotting the vote include a wide group of people inside and outside Iran, including many who formerly used to be sympathetic to the regime, such as the former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Mr. Mousavi and Faezeh Hashemi, the daughter of former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. Last month, over 230 prominent activists signed an open letter calling for an election boycott and stated that their goal is to bring “nonviolent transition from the Islamic Republic to the rule of the people.”
Unsurprisingly, Ayatollah Khamenei has branded those pushing for a boycott as enemies and has urged Iranians to go to the polls. Here lies the regime’s dilemma: Iran’s leadership wants just enough turnout to legitimize Mr. Raisi’s victory, but not so much that the result might demonstrate how unpopular he really is.
During his campaign trips in recent weeks, Mr. Raisi has sought to cast himself as a man of the people and has promised to fight corruption. He talked to people who approached him about pending court cases, depicting himself as an accessible man. But his past as head of the judiciary is testament to what may lie ahead under his rule. Young activists were tried behind closed doors and executed. As a young cleric, he signed off on the executions of thousands of political prisoners in 1988.
Boycotting the elections, for a population that is deeply scarred, is understandable. But sadly, a boycott this time may cement the hard-liners’ grip on power for many years to come.
Nazila Fathi is the author of “The Lonely War: One Woman’s Account of the Struggle for Modern Iran.” She is a fellow at the Washington-based Middle East Institute. She lives in Maryland.
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