In the end, Iran’s presidential election may be defined by who doesn’t vote.
Arguments over whether to boycott Friday’s ballot still boiled over at coffee shops, kitchen tables and on social media among many liberal-leaning Iranians on the eve of the voting. The choice, once easy for many who turned their back in anger after years of crackdowns, has been suddenly complicated by an unexpected chance to perhaps wage a bit of payback against Iran’s rulers.
The rising fortunes of the lone relative moderate left in the race, former nuclear negotiator Hasan Rowhani, has created something of a zig-or-zag dilemma for many Iranians who faced down security forces four years ago: Stay away from the polls in a silent protest or jump back into the mix in a system they claim has been disgraced by vote-rigging.
Which way the scales tip could set the direction of the election and the fate of Rowhani, a cleric who is many degrees of mildness removed from being an opposition leader. But he is still the only fallback option for moderates in an election that once seemed preordained for a pro-establishment loyalist.
“There is a lot of interesting psychology going on. What is right? Which way to go?” said Salman Shaikh, director of The Brookings Doha Center in Qatar. “This is what it means to be a reformist in Iran these days.”
It’s also partly a political stock-taking that ties together nearly all the significant themes of the election: the powers of the ruling clerics to limit the choices, the anger over years of pressures to muzzle dissent and the unwavering claims that the last election was stolen in favor of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who cannot run for a third consecutive term.
Iran’s presidency is a big prize, but not a crown jewel. The president does not set major policies or have the power to make important social or political openings. That rests with the ruling theocracy and its protectors, led by the immensely powerful Revolutionary Guard
But for liberal-leaning Iranians, upsetting the leadership’s apparent plans by electing Rowhani could open more room for reformist voices and mark a rare bit of table-turning after years of punishing reprisals for the 2009 protests, the worst domestic unrest in Iran since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
There are no credible voter polls in Iran, and supporters of each candidate claim their camp is leading, yet Rowhani seems to be tapping into growing energy.
Any significant boycott would likely hurt Rowhani the most. And a change of heart to vote on the part of many liberal-leaning Iranians could push Rowhani toward the top.