What is the mood in Iran ahead of the presidential elections

Election billboards adorning the streets of Iran for the upcoming presidential election make big promises: economic prosperity, an end to corruption, freedom of the press, reversing the brain drain, and a candidate's pledge to “save the citizens” from all troubles that afflict the country.

In their efforts to attract votes, all six candidates – five conservatives and one reformist, all selected by a committee of clerics – are unleashing violent attacks on the status quo. In speeches, television debates and roundtables they criticized the government's economic, domestic and foreign policies, as well as the moral police's violent treatment of women, and ridiculed official rosy assessments of Iran's economic prospects as harmful illusions.

Extraordinary presidential elections will be held in Iran on June 28 to choose the successor to President Ebrahim Raisi, an intransigent conservative who died last month in a helicopter crash. While the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has the final say on all major policy decisions in Iran, the presidency sets the domestic agenda and, to a lesser extent, can influence foreign policy.

Elections in Iran are not free and fair by Western standards, and candidate selection is strictly controlled by the Guardian Council, an appointed committee of 12 clerics. Some elections, however, have been competitive and the results can be unpredictable. The council approved the current candidates from a list of 80, seven of them women, and among them a former president and several ministers and parliamentarians, all of whom were disqualified.

In past political campaigns, conservatives and reformists have both attacked their rivals, but conservatives have typically remained within rigid ideological boundaries that precluded attacks on the system.

While one might expect harsh criticism of this campaign from the reformist candidate, the fact that it came from conservatives surprised some Iranians. And that may be the point, analysts say.

Voter turnout is an important indicator for the government, a measure of its support and legitimacy, and has lagged due to boycotts and voter apathy. To some extent, the debates reflect real divisions within the political ranks and a general frustration, even among officials, with the country's problems.

The presence of a reformist candidate, Dr. Masoud Pezeshkian, is itself a surprise, as the council has barred most reformists from running in recent parliamentary and presidential races. However, this could also be a government ploy to increase voter turnout, an Iranian expert said.

Dr. Pezeshkian, a heart surgeon, former health minister and longtime member of Parliament, was a “symbolic candidate trying to create debate and mobilize people's votes,” said Sanam Vakil, director of the Middle East and North Africa program at Chatham House in New York. London. “They probably calculated that, for reasons of legitimacy and internal optics, holding what appears to be a more dynamic election would be advantageous.”

However, Vakil said the election season in Iran has shown a level of rigorous public debate rarely seen in some of the region's countries with authoritarian governments.

Despite the government's efforts, generating enough interest to convince voters to turn out in large numbers remains a challenge. Voter cynicism is widespread, with many Iranians saying in interviews, social media posts and public election forums that they have lost faith in achieving meaningful change through the ballot box and prefer an end to clerical rule.

“We resent your colorful deceptions every day,” a university student who did not give his name to Dr. Pezeshkian said at a recent meeting at Tehran University, according to a video of the event. The crowd in the auditorium erupted in cheers and applause.

The student then disputed the importance of the presidency. “What is the meaning of the presidency,” he asked, “when it has neither the power to influence those above nor remain immune to interference from the intelligence apparatus?”

Dr. Pezeshkian, while generally sympathetic, told the student that, as president, he would not have the power to accomplish many of the things he had called for, such as the release of political prisoners, “even if I wanted to.”

He went on to tell students that he opposed the morality police and that he spoke out against the treatment of Mahsa Amini, the young Kurdish woman who died in the custody of the morality police in 2022, sparking a nationwide uprising.

“We do things that make women and girls hate us,” she said. “It is our behavior that makes them conflicted.”

Iranian elections can be fluid, with candidates dropping out to consolidate support among one or two contenders. For now, the favorite is a conservative, Mohammad Baqer Ghalibaf, former commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and former mayor of Tehran and now speaker of Parliament.

Mr Ghalibaf is a strongman figure with close ties to Mr Khamenei. Whistleblowers and journalists have exposed numerous scandals involving Ghalibaf and his family, including financial corruption and ideological heresies such as preaching austerity while his relatives spend lavishly abroad. He denied the accusations.

Navid Farrokhi, 45, a Tehran businessman and entrepreneur who sits on the advisory board of the Iranian Chamber of Commerce, said he supported Ghalibaf because of his decades of administrative experience and dealings with foreign capital as mayor. He said he didn't care about the corruption charges.

“I live here, work here and manage my employees with many challenges,” Farrokhi said in a telephone interview. “I want to feel like I have a say in improving our lives, and I can do that through participating in elections.”

Ali, 42, an engineer from Tehran who asked that his last name not be used for fear of retaliation, said in an interview that he was growing closer to Dr. Pezeshkian and was considering voting for him.

“I thought I wouldn't vote for anyone in this election, but Pezeshkian is an interesting figure,” he said. “He has been outspoken and direct in his opinions and has no blemishes on his political career.”

The other four Conservative candidates are Saeed Jalili, a hardliner who has held senior roles, including chief nuclear negotiator; Amirhossein Ghazizadeh Hashemi, vice president of the Raisi administration; Alireza Zakani, current mayor of Tehran; and Mostafa Pourmohammadi, the only cleric, who served as director of counterintelligence at the Ministry of Intelligence and as minister of Justice.

Ghalibaf sought to demonstrate that he could improve government efficiency. During a televised panel discussion, he complained that at least 30 percent of all oil revenues are lost by evading sanctions, an unacceptably high figure, he said, that is “the result of being uninformed, incompetent and reckless.” .

The cleric, Pourmohammadi, said in a televised debate that the Islamic Republic has almost lost its people and that governing successfully “would require a miracle.”

“The miracle of people's trust. The miracle of people's trust in the government,” she added.

Briefly illustrating Mr Pourmohammadi's point was a 37-year-old engineer from Isfahan, Soheil, who also asked that his surname not be used for fear of retaliation. “I won't vote, the elections are not free,” he said in a telephone interview. “My representative is not among the candidates and I don't see any difference between them. Nobody represents my desires.

While candidates have been free to criticize the government, the media has been kept on a tight leash. Two prominent journalists, Yashar Soltani and Saba Azarpeik, were arrested this month due to their work reporting corruption allegations against government officials, particularly Ghalibaf.

The government body issued a warning to all media outlets in June that any coverage that could be interpreted as encouraging people not to vote or reducing voter turnout would be a crime punishable by up to 74 lashes for the top leader and the revocation of the publication license. .

On Tuesday, Narges Mohammadi, a Nobel laureate and human rights activist serving a 10-year prison sentence, was sentenced to an additional year in prison, Mostafa Nili, her lawyer, said.

The additional sentence was punishment for urging Iranians to boycott parliamentary elections in March and for criticizing Dina, Ghalibaf's daughter, for a lavish baby shower in Turkey and her subsequent importation of nearly 500 pounds of clothes for children and related articles, despite his father's measures to the contrary. preaching that Iranians must buy domestic products.

The scandal became known in Iran as #babyshowergate.

Last Thursday, Iran's judiciary announced the arrest of Vahid Ashtari, a prominent conservative whistleblower who exposed the baby shower scandal.

Leily Nikounazar contributed to the reporting.

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