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With all candidates to be vetted by authorities and an opposition boycott on the cards, one of the most important battles in the upcoming Iranian presidential election is likely to be about turnout.


The country’s leaders need significant participation in June to secure legitimacy, which was gravely undermined after the previous presidential vote and its bloody aftermath four years ago when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was re-elected over his reformist challenger, Mir Hossein Mousavi, in a vote that many Iranians believe was manipulated.

Mousavi, his wife, the artist Zahra Rahnavard, and the former parliament speaker Mehdi Karroubi, who also campaigned for the presidency as a reformist, have been under house arrest since 2011, a response to large-scale pro-democracy demonstrations. Their supporters have called for a boycott of elections, saying all pro-democracy activists must be released as a precondition for participating.

But although voting is not officially compulsory in the Islamic republic, many Iranians feel they will be penalized if they do not. Each voter gets a stamp in their national identification booklet, and there’s a widespread belief that having a stamp is important in the selection process for government positions and for obtaining various professional permits. As a result, a substantial number of dissatisfied voters show up only to enter blank or illegible ballots. In parliamentary elections last year so many ballots reportedly had to be discarded that an MP requested an investigation into the matter.

Amir, 26, who lives in the Monirieh district in south Tehran, described the pressure he felt to vote. “The people in my generation are looking for secure work. In job interviews at governmental and semi-governmental organizations, or even when seeking a permit to start an artistic or public relations office, they look at your national ID booklet to see if you have voted in the elections. The number of such stamps has a critical bearing on the acceptance of your application file. So, I have to participate in the elections, even if it means depositing a blank ballot,” said Amir, who is currently job-hunting after years of studying graphic design.

This year the government is employing a new strategy to boost participation. For the first time, the presidential contest will be held at the same time as municipal and rural council elections, which prompt intense campaign activity in many areas.

Behrang, a political science student with experience in electoral campaign work, said: “Combining the two elections is a public relations escape route from the lack-of-confidence crisis, because there is strong competition to capture rural and small city council seats. Hence, when someone goes to vote for a council member he supports, it is very likely that he will take part in the presidential balloting at the same time.”

Then there are the economic inducements. Since December 2011, when subsidies on many household goods and energy were eliminated or reduced, the government has made direct payments to Iranian families to partly offset the inflationary effects. “By making payments in the months close to the elections, and perhaps even boosting the amounts, the government can appease the rural population and entice them to appear at the ballot boxes,” Behrang said.

Iranians are feeling the effects of economic sanctions, and financial worries are affecting how Iranians view the upcoming election. Mohammad, 45, is a semi-skilled laborer at a ceramic tile factory. He has two children, eight and 13 years old. “I sold my two-bedroom home to move to a better district so that I could sign up my kids at better schools,” he said. “The way the prices went up, not only could I not buy a new place, I ended up renting a basement unit in a worse district.” He has also had to sell his car, and his wife has started working in a clothing store.

“I am worried that the factory will close and I will be left unemployed.” Scores of Iranian manufacturing operations have shut down in the past year. Asked whether he would vote, Mohammad said: “Officials get government-provided housing, they have no phone, water, or electricity bills, they get high salaries with nice benefits. They are not worried about losing their jobs. In short, they have no sense of our problems. Then they want to drag us out to the polling boxes to vote. All their concerns are politics. It would be nice if they could be concerned about us a bit too.”

Dissatisfaction with the leadership is not limited to the working class. Javid, who holds a degree in chemical engineering, is the project director for a petrochemical contractor in Oslovieh, Iran’s largest onshore petroleum field. In an interview conducted online, he said: “Three years ago we had over 3,000 employees, but today only 600 have a job. The rest were ‘right-sized’, laid off.

“A month ago, my spouse was one of those laid off. So we have applied for a US student visa for her so that we can get away from Iran for a few years. The current conditions are scary and everyone is trapped in a vague sense of anticipation.”

His wife, Nasrin, added: “Many of my laid-off co-workers and I see the government, because of its mismanagement of the economy, as the main culprit. Last time we voted to bring in a new government, change the situation and reform things, but the conditions became even worse … I won’t repeat the same experience by voting [this time].”

But some Iranians say they are looking forward to voting. Ehsan, 30, has recently married. By his account, he has been a member of the Basij militia since adolescence. His father, now retired, served in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. According to Ehsan, who works as a driver with a transportation company: “The critical conditions are due to the breakdown in the global economy. All countries of the world are in economic crisis; it is not this government’s fault.”

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