By Golnaz Esfandiari, RFE/RL
Like many Iranians, 31-year-old Amir is pondering what to do on June 14, when Iran chooses a new president. He has two options -- to vote or not to vote -- and neither is good, he says.
Two Iranian women cast ballots at a polling station in Tehran in Iran's city council elections in 2006.
Voting could lend legitimacy to the Iranian establishment in the international arena and help it erase the embarrassment caused by Mahmud Ahmadinejad's contentious reelection in 2009. More than 70 people were killed and chaos ensued after mass protests erupted following that election, and the international community widely criticized Tehran's response.
By not voting, however, citizens could lose a rare chance to have an impact on issues that affect their daily lives. The final list of candidates can be expected to be hand-picked by the establishment, but from that group voters could choose the one best suited to turning around the economy, for example.
Moreover, in what appears to be an effort to boost participation, the presidential vote is for the first time being held concurrently with city council elections. Local polls usually generate considerable enthusiasm in smaller cities and villages, and by sitting out voters would miss out on an opportunity to weigh in on matters close to home.
The authorities and potential candidates have highlighted the vote's significance by calling for a turnout that would deal a blow to the country’s enemies, in the words of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
High voter participation would be taken by the Iranian establishment as a sign of popular grassroots support, countering outside claims that Iranian's political system does not represent the will of the people.
In comments reported by Mehr News Agency on April 13, outgoing President Ahmadinejad said that "the enemies are making every effort to discourage people, but when the people enter the scene, everything will change, so we should aim for a massive turnout in the election."
Others have described voting as a national duty; and it has been noted that even amid recent tension, foreign powers have acknowledged the importance of respecting Iran because it has an elected government in power.
This year’s vote comes as harsh economic sanctions imposed on Iran by the West have taken their toll. The sanctions, handed down in an effort to get Iran to reverse its nuclear course, have led to high inflation and economic uncertainty among average Iranians.
For many, the economy could prove to the decisive factor in whether they vote.
"People are very worried about the future," a Tehran-based journalist told RFE/RL on condition of anonymity. "That could lead many to vote, hoping that it could lead to some improvement on the economic front."
For others, the decision will come down to where they believe their vote can make a difference or, conversely, whether not casting a ballot can send a message of voter discontent to the authorities.
Cartoon by Mana Neyestani, Mardomak
Well-known national religious activist Taghi Rahmani, who left Iran about a year ago, argues that individual boycotts will have little effect on the establishment when it comes to the June election.
"“Not voting is not something that will upset the Islamic establishment," Rahmani says. "These elections will be held simultaneously with city council elections in which the motivation for participation is very high because of family, ethnic, and tribal ties. Historically, 40 to 50 percent of Iranians have taken part in the elections. Therefore the regime doesn’t face a real vote problem. Forty to 50 percent will vote, [the regime] will add to that 10 percent and make it 60 [percent turnout]."
Supreme Leader Khamenei has ample means to shape the final candidates list. The Central Election Board, which will oversee the June 14 vote, is seen to be close to Khamenei. And half the members of the Guardians Council, which vets all candidates, are hand-chosen by the supreme leader.
Rahmani predicts that Khamenei will seek to have several weak reformist candidates among the final candidates in order to give the appearance of a free and credible vote.
Opposition Dilemma, Too
This offers the opposition, which has been pushed from the political scene since the 2009 election, a window of opportunity to be a factor in the 2013 contest.
Rahmani suggests that opposition supporters could throw their collective weight behind a "strong reformist candidate." He names former President Mohammad Khatami as an example of the type of candidate who could mobilize the electorate.
Khatami has not announced his intention to enter his nomination when the registration of potential candidates takes place from May 7 to May 11, but pro-reformists are calling for him to do so. Whether the supreme leader would regard him as too strong a contender is another question.
Businessman Reza says he would definitely support Khatami if he entered the race.
But in the event the former president does not run, Reza says, "then reformists should again nominate [Mir Hossein] Musavi to raise the pressure on Khamenei.
Musavi and Mehdi Karrubi, both of whom ran against Ahmadinejad in the 2009 election, are currently under house arrest and their opposition Green Movement has largely been silenced.
Ardeshir Amir Arjomand, a top Musavi adviser and the spokeman for the Green Movement coordinating council, says voting makes sense only if the conditions for free and fair elections are guaranteed.
"We hope that the establishment will change its ways, and create the requirements for free and fair vote," Arjomand says. "It is the right of all Iranian people. They are being deprived of this right. If the elections are not healthy, then people will not have a reason to vote. We don't need to tell them. They will be aware."
Among those boycotting the vote is Iranian Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Shirin Ebadi, who tells RFE/RL she wants to bring the world's attention to Iran's flawed electoral process.
"Elections are useful if they are free and people can vote for whoever they choose to," Ebadi says. "This is a personal decision and I don't have any advice for anyone to vote or not to vote."
Tehran-based Ali supported the opposition in 2009 and has lost all illusions that his vote matters.
"I knew that elections in Iran were not completely free, but I didn’t expect them to kill people who challenged the election result," Ali says. Ali now says he refuses to participate in an election organized by an establishment "with blood on its hands."
The success of previous boycotts supported by the opposition is debatable.
Some believe that an election boycott in 2005 helped swing the vote in favor of Ahmadinejad. Ultimately, however, Ahmadinejad's surprise victory led to the reversal of some of the modest reforms implemented by his predecessor Khatami.
Despite calls by reformists and the opposition movement to boycott the 2012 parliamentary elections, officials announced a relatively high turnout and claimed wide support, although official figures cannot be independently verified.
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