'The only vote I have': Iranians mull tough choices

'The only vote I have': Iranians mull tough choices
Voters queuing outside Tehran’s Hosseiniyeh Ershad Mosque on Friday offer a portrait of the masses still holding onto faith in Iran’s political system.
4 min read
In a poll that barred most hopefuls from running and with many disillusioned voters expected to abstain, judiciary chief Ebrahim Raisi is seen as all but certain to win [AFP via Getty]

Tehran's turquoise-domed Hosseiniyeh Ershad Mosque is usually a reformist stronghold, but most voters who cast their ballots there in Iran's presidential election Friday said they wanted an ultraconservative to win.

In a poll that barred most hopefuls from running and with many disillusioned voters expected to abstain, the austere 60-year-old cleric and judiciary chief Ebrahim Raisi is seen as all but certain to win.

"Mr Raisi is a man who really loves the Iranian people, and he does everything for the nation -- what more do we want?" said Yalda, a woman dressed in a conservative black full-body chador, waiting in the queue outside the mosque.

As she stood in line, she passionately sought to convince others to vote for Raisi, who has pledged to help the poor, fight corruption and stand up to the West, and who is seen as close to Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

But most already shared Yalda's view outside the Shia Muslim mosque decorated with ornate mosaics, a religious and cultural centre that is usually popular with young students, intellectuals and progressive clerics.

Outside hung a poster with a symbolic ink-stained index finger encouraging voters, although that practice was stopped this year due to the deadly Covid-19 pandemic that has flared in the country of 83 million.

Other people in the queue chimed in on the state of politics in Iran, where a painful economic crisis is blamed variously on US sanctions, the virus or mismanagement by the outgoing government of President Hassan Rouhani.

"The others want to continue Rouhani's path," chipped in a man standing nearby, without naming any of the other three remaining candidates, while his friend added: "They only want to line their pockets."

Mohammad Reza, a 28-year-old veterinarian voting for the first time, was another who hailed Raisi as the "system's last chance", adding that "if he can't solve the problems, nobody can".


'I am young, I want a job'

The Islamic republic established after Iran's 1979 revolution has long been torn between the dominant conservative camp and those who would like to see social reforms and a greater opening to the West.

Leading the ultraconservative camp in the election is Raisi, whose face, framed by the black turban signifying lineage from Islam's Prophet Mohammed, has been dominant among downtown Tehran's election posters.

One banner shows Raisi with Qasem Soleimani, the revered commander of the Revolutionary Guards' foreign operations arm, whose 2020 killing in a US drone strike in Baghdad sparked mass mourning in Iran.

Rouhani's reformists have taken heavy blows since former US president Donald Trump in 2018 withdrew from the nuclear deal that had promised Iran sanctions relief in return for scaling back its nuclear programme.

Renewed sanctions have further isolated Iran, sparked runaway inflation and seen ultraconservatives attack Rouhani for having trusted the West while doubling down on the official state policy labelling Washington as the "Great Satan".

One university student and first-time voter, Mohammad Mehdi, from an affluent northern Tehran suburb and sporting long hair, said he had been arguing with his moderate-leaning family "until this morning" about his support for Raisi.

"Mr. Raisi spoke a lot about unemployed young people during the televised debates," he said. "I am young and I want to have a job in the future."

'Serious economic problems'

The only reformist left in the race on election day was the former central bank chief Abdolnaser Hemmati, but his modest support has been hammered by public anger over the galloping inflation of recent years.

An academic and karate blackbelt, the clean-shaven and suit-wearing 65-year-old -- who earlier voted at the same mosque -- was the only candidate to heavily involve his wife, Sepideh Shabestari, in campaigning.

Pre-election polling gave Hemmati only low single-digit support -- but a young middle-class couple arriving at the mosque with their five-year-old son said he would get their vote.

"Just to tell you, we too have serious economic problems," said the wife, Forough, explaining that the couple had just opened a small factory near Tehran.

But she added that she believes Hemmati, as an economist, could solve them.

Overseas-based Iranian opposition groups have urged an election boycott, but her husband Mojataba, 35, dismissed such calls: "I want us to decide about our country at home, not leave it to the opposition abroad."

"I understand those who do not vote," he added. "They are unhappy because their situation is difficult. I came to defend the only vote I have.