Iranians can vote for a new president on June 28, after the death of Ebrahim Raisi in a helicopter crash last month. How many will vote, we just don’t know - a report from Tehran.

Turnout was over 80 percent in 2009, but it dropped below 50 percent in 2021. This time, it will likely be closer to the latter than the former. Just how close, whether higher or lower, is hard to predict. However, two things can be said with almost certainty: first, Islamic Republic officials will label it a ‘glorious’ election, regardless of the turnout, and second, many millions—possibly a majority—will abstain from voting.

"We once thought there was a glimmer of hope,” says Zohreh, 36, who is trying to launch a tiny catering business from the kitchen in her apartment. “We thought things would get better if we kept voting for the least bad candidate, anyone even slightly better than the hardline fundamentalists. But now we know better.”

In May 2017, the ‘moderate’ incumbent, Hassan Rouhani, won his second term as president, riding high on widespread optimism in the wake of the 2015 nuclear deal –a deal he had vowed to get in his first election campaign in 2013. Standing for reelection, Rouhani spoke of a better future with moderate Reformists, and many believed him. His promise turned out empty six months later, however, leaving many Iranians full of rage, those struggling financially in particular. In December 2017, these took to the streets across Iran, chanting a new, momentous slogan: "Reformists, Conservatives, the Game is Over."

Up until then, Iran’s polity was characterized by and viewed as a never-ending power struggle between two broadly defined camps: those seeking reform and those sticking to the theocracy’s founding ‘principles’ (hence the term Principlist). The two forces dominated Iranian politics until that fateful winter, when the protesters made it clear that they no longer believed in this dichotomy; that they saw them as two cheeks of the same backside that had to be kicked.

People watching a presidential debate from a teahouse in Karaj (June 2024)

Zohreh is typical in this sense. She used to vote “until 2017”, she says. But the way the “supposedly moderate” Rouhani treated the protestors made her think twice. And then came the “double crimes” in November 2019, when hundreds of impoverished Iranians were shot dead for daring to protest against a sudden rise in gasoline prices. In January 2020, the Revolutionary Guard shot down a Ukrainian passenger plane over Tehran, killing all 176 onboard. These were the “final nails in the coffin”, Zohreh says. She lost all hope in ‘reform’. The game was over for her.

“I’m surprised that some still believe in change through the ballot box and encourage others to do the same,” she adds. “For me, taking part in elections has lost all meaning. But I don’t argue with those who see some benefit in voting. I think everyone should be left free to act according to their judgment.”

When first heard in 2017, the “Game is Over” slogan was truly radical. Not many believed in it, and even fewer were willing to say it out loud. However, it quickly resonated with people and became a self-fulfilling prophecy, relieving the state of the burden to maintain its facade. In the parliamentary elections of 2020, the presidential vote of 2021, and the March parliamentary elections in 2024, ‘moderates’ regime insiders were purged. While different groupings and faces remained, they were all "soldiers" on one front, displaying absolute loyalty to their supreme leader, often referred to as "the System."

Unsurprisingly, voter turnout plunged, reaching historic lows of 40 percent –and as low as half that in larger cities. But that trend can change on June 28. The snap election seems to be drawing some interest, however minimal, mainly from those who feel they still have a lot to lose.

“I was sure I wouldn’t vote until a few weeks ago,” says Pouria, 43, who has a relatively well-paid job in the private sector. “But I’m not so sure now. I’m going to watch the debates and see what the candidates have to say before making a decision.” Pouria has voted only twice, in 2009 and 2017, on both occasions for the ‘Reform’ candidate. He says he’s been “pleasantly surprised” that a “moderate” has been allowed to stand.

The ‘moderate’ is Masoud Pezeshkian, a surgeon, former health minister and multi-term lawmaker. He has energized the career ‘reformists’ who have been pushed aside to the point of irrelevance by loyalists of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, but still surface every election to arrogantly remind people that they’re still the only hope to challenge the hardliner hegemony. They seem untroubled by the fact that the candidate they’re claiming as their own is all too careful not to be associated with them. Not only that, but he has also proudly confirmed that he’s just another ‘soldier’ and cannot be expected to affect much change.

Still, some like Pouria feel that Pezeshkian may be worth their vote. They have no “illusion” that he can “improve” their lives. They just hope that he can at least “slow” the nation’s downward march towards “total misery”. But even this seems to be a minority view. Pouria says he doesn’t feel comfortable telling his friends that he is “undecided”, fearing they might distance themselves from him. “They say the regime's intentions are clear,” Pouria says. “They think Pezeshkian is just there to improve the recent abysmal turnout. And so, they view voting as collusion with tyranny.” But for Pouria, “it’s not a moral question.” He prefers to be “pragmatic”, especially as he believes that “revolution or overthrow is impossible” now.

This line of reasoning has previously carried some undecided or reluctant Iranians to the polling stations. There are still some activists who argue this case, trying to convince others not to “forgo” their choice.

“The lets-vote crowd prefer to ignore the fundamental questions,” says Maryam, visibly irritated. She is 28 and works as a PE teacher at a middle school in Tehran. "Their ‘bad vs worse’ argument is so expired,” she says. “Why should we vote again? Did they not block all avenues for change the last time we voted? Did they not appoint ministers and reduce the president to a mere butler? Did they not kill children to remain in power [in 2022]? Where are the signs that this time our vote can change anything?”

Maryam jokes that she ruined her day with my questions. There’s very little appetite for these conversations. It’s no more like pre-2020 when friends tried to convince one another to ‘take part’ or ‘boycott.’ Heated debates, very common until a few years ago, are almost non-existent. Most people seem to have moved on from elections as a means of change. For the young, the penniless, and the women, above all, who face the brunt of the Holy System every day, that game seems to be well and truly over.

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