Iranians are voting in a presidential election in which the ultraconservative cleric Ebrahim Raisi is seen as all but certain to coast to victory, after all serious rivals were barred from running.
After a lacklustre campaign, turnout was expected to plummet to a new low in a country exhausted by a punishing regime of US economic sanctions that has dashed hopes for a brighter future.
The supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, cast the first vote in Tehran and then urged Iran’s nearly 60 million eligible voters to follow suit before the scheduled close of polls at midnight.
“The sooner you perform this task and duty, the better,” the 81-year-old Khamenei said, stressing that voting “serves to build the future” of the Iranian people.
But enthusiasm has been dampened by the disqualification of many hopefuls from the race and the deep economic malaise which has sparked spiralling inflation and job losses, the crisis deepened by the Covid pandemic.
“I’m not a politician; I don’t know anything about politics,” said Tehran car mechanic Nasrollah. “I have no money. All families are now facing economic problems.
“How can we vote for these people who did this to us? It’s not right.”
Iranian opposition groups abroad and some dissidents at home have urged a boycott of the vote they see as an engineered victory for Raisi, the 60-year-old head of the judiciary, to cement ultraconservative control.
Voters queued at schools, mosques and community centres, some carrying Iran’s green, white and red national flag.
Iran has often pointed to voter participation for democratic legitimacy – but polls signal the turnout may drop below the 43% of last year’s parliamentary election.
Results are expected around noon on Saturday. If no clear winner emerges, a runoff will be held a week later.
Election placards are relatively sparse in Tehran, dominated by those showing the austere face of frontrunner Raisi, in his trademark black turban and clerical robe, who has been named in Iranian media as a possible successor to Khamenei.
For the exiled Iranian opposition and rights groups, his name is indelibly associated with the mass execution of leftists in 1988, when he was deputy prosecutor of Tehran’s revolutionary court, although he has denied involvement.
The election winner will take over in August as Iran’s eighth president, from Hassan Rouhani, a moderate who has served the maximum of two consecutive four-yearterms allowed under the constitution.
After casting his vote, Rouhani told the public: “Elections are important no matter what, and despite these problems we must go and vote.” He acknowledged he would have liked to see “more people present” at the polling stations.
Ultimate political power in Iran, since its 1979 revolution toppled the US-backed monarchy, rests with the supreme leader. But the president, as the top official of the state bureaucracy, also wields significant influence in fields from industrial policy to foreign affairs.