'To vote for.. or vote at all': Stark choice for Iranians in Presidential race run-off

by IANS |

 July 4 (IANS) He may have finished last in Iran's Presidential race but cleric Mostafa Pourmohammadi's subsequent message to voters encapsulated the underlying issue the regime is grappling with - and not very successfully - as reformist Masoud Pezeshkian gears up to hold his lead over ultra-conservative Saeed Jalili in the run-off on Friday. The fact that Pourmohammadi, who was deemed a conservative but surprised people in the run-up to the June 28 election with his rather progressive view on key issues, is evident in his message's tone and tenor, hailing the voters but also expressing "respect" to all those who "did not believe us and did not come". Turnout in the polls was just 40 per cent - the lowest since 1979. "Your presence and absence are full of messages that I hope will be heard. Your message is clear and unambiguous," the cleric said on social media. As both Pezeshkian and Jalili wrapped up both their television debates on Monday and Tuesday in which they presented their courses of action and clashed on approaches and mindsets, the overriding issue in Friday's elections is not limited to whether the reformist or the hardliner will prevail, but does this question even concern the great mass of the (absent) voters? In more general terms, will the 60 per cent, who were absent from polling booths on last Friday, shed their apathy to their participation in elections - restricted or imperfect as they may be - and keep faith in the exercise as a means of political and social change? Turnout in elections - both presidential and parliamentary - has long been deemed as a sign of legitimacy in the Iranian system. However, these hopes have been belied in the present snap elections, as well as the parliamentary elections earlier this year (41 per cent) and the previous presidential elections (2021) - won by Ebrahim Raisi - at 48.8 per cent. Even an impassioned appeal by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei before these elections seeking a "maximum" voter turnout as a message to the country's "enemies" and to "make the Islamic Republic proud", failed to sway the voters. This is a legacy issue that the establishment will have to face up to and it figured prominently in the debates between Pezeshkian and Jalili. Jalili, who called for examining why there is a "decrease in people's participation" in elections", agreed it was a concern with Pezeshkian, who dwelled on the issue in more detail, terming it "unacceptable that 60 per cent of the people did not come to the polls". The reformist candidate also linked it to wider social and political issues like the internet curbs and the hijab issue, saying it also is due to women or some ethnic groups "that are not engaged by us". "When we ignore people's rights and do not want to listen to their voices, expecting them to come to the polls is not a reasonable expectation. When 60 per cent of the people do not come to vote, we should feel that there is something wrong. There is a shortcoming," he asserted, as per transcripts of the debates on Iranian media. The statements by Pezeshkian were also addressed to the large section of the disillusioned reform-seeking yet non-voting electorate as he faces a clear loss if they again sit at home on Friday. In the first round on June 28, Pezeshkian got 10.41 million votes, while Jalili was not far behind with 9.47 million, out of the 24.5 million votes cast, or just about 40 per cent of the 61 million-odd electorate. Majles Speaker and former Tehran Mayor Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, whom some polls had tipped as a prime contender over both Pezeshkian and Jalili, was the distant third with 3.38 million votes, while Pourmohammadi had to be content with 206,397 votes The other two allowed candidates - Tehran Mayor Alireza Zakani and Vice President Amir-Hossein Ghazizadeh Hashemi - both conservatives - had quit days before Friday's election. In the wake of the result, which led to a run-off as neither Pezeshkian nor Jalili secured the victory margin of 50 per cent plus one, Qalibaf, Zakani, and Hashemi appealed to their supporters to back Jalili now. Pourmohammadi expressed no preference. The combined vote count of the conservative camp is enough to propel Jalili to victory, but there is a caveat. Despite appearances and (chiefly Western) perceptions, Iranian politics is fluid and not just two opposing distinct and united reformist or conservative camps as there are a lot of different sub-groups with their own agendas and aspirations. Then, there is an overlap in policy approaches too, whether of the conservative hardliners or the progressive reformists. But political participation, or rather, the lack of it, remains an abiding challenge and it remains to be seen if Pourmohammadi's hopes are realised. (Vikas Datta can be contacted at vikas.d@ians.in) 

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