AFP: Voting, the Iranian public has been told, is as important
as praying. And casting a ballot, the regime has also said, is akin a “firing a bullet into the heart” of US President George W. Bush.
When Iran goes to the polls on June 17 to elect a new president, voter turnout will be closely watched — with the
figure seen as a measure of precisely how popular the much-maligned 26-year-old theocracy actually is. AFP
TEHRAN – Voting, the Iranian public has been told, is as important as praying.
And casting a ballot, the regime has also said, is akin a “firing a bullet into the heart” of US President George W. Bush.
When Iran goes to the polls on June 17 to elect a new president, voter turnout will be closely watched — with the figure seen as a measure of precisely how popular the much-maligned 26-year-old theocracy actually is.
Having selected who can and cannot stand for the presidency, Iran’s number-two post, the uppermost echelons of the regime now need voters to turn out en masse and validate their choice and therefore their way of running the country.
The regime’s opponents, on the other hand, are hoping that the electorate will simply stay at home and leave those mixing religion and politics to chew over their own damaged legitimacy.
“The enemies will use every means to discourage the electorate from taking part in the June 17 election,” Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has warned.
In Iran’s regime-speak, “enemies” generally means the United States and Israel in particular, but in this case applies equally to anyone who criticises the regime.
The message is clear: taking part in an Iranian election may not be compulsory, but it is nevertheless a religious, nationalistic and democratic duty.
The timing of the presidential elections, and the participation in it, is also particularly sensitive given that Iran is under mounting international pressure over its nuclear programme and in greater need than ever to prove to the world that it enjoys the support of its public.
But just how many people does the regime need to go to the polling stations in June?
Analysts believe it will certainly have to stay close to the figures from previous elections, which have seen participation rates that compare well with many Western democracies.
When incumbent reformist President Mohammad Khatami was first elected in 1997, close to 80 percent of eligible voters cast their ballots. The last presidential elections in 2001 saw participation slip slightly to the still very respectable 66 percent.
Parliamentary elections last year saw the figure slip further to 50 percent — a record low for a major election in Iran since the 1979 Islamic revolution.
On June 17, it appears turnout will again hover around the halfway mark — short of a triumph for the regime, but also short of a victory for those pointing to a massive gap between Khamenei and the Iranian public.
Authorities are therefore eager not to see the figure fall much further, something that would deal a symbolic blow against the democratic aspect of their “Islamic democracy”.
“For the first time in an opinion poll, 23 percent of the electorate are saying that they won’t be voting. It’s an important figure because ahead of the last presidential elections, just five percent of people said they wouldn’t vote,” a government official said.
Top cleric Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a pragmatic conservative and potentially a moderating force in Iran’s ongoing right-left stand-off, has also justified his entry into the race by asserting he is one of the few politicians who can bring out the public on election day.
“The enemies want a weak president elected with very few votes,” Rafsanjani said, echoing the now daily demands for “massive participation”.
Many Iranians are certainly unconvinced, and straw polls in big cities like Tehran — where turnout has fallen massively in recent years — reveal increased apathy more than anything else.
The lesson from the Khatami reform experiment, many Iranians say, is that the president does not have the necessary power to challenge entrenched hardliners and voting is therefore of limited impact.
But move to the provinces and voter interest is, in general, much stronger, and the regime does not seem to be in danger of losing its core support base.
Analysts predict the entire issue of turnout and its eventual impact on the regime is set to be largely inconclusive this time around — with the figure not entirely satisfactory for the regime, but not too encouraging for the Washington-based supporters of “regime change” either.
“A turnout of 50 percent or more is acceptable,” explained Mohammad Atrianfar, director of the Shargh newspaper and a Rafsanjani supporter.
“If it falls below 40 percent, there would be a problem, but I think that in the end between 50 and 55 percent of people will vote.”