One of the more telling features of the election campaign in Iran was that no candidate seemed to appeal to Generation Z first-time voters. Perhaps they assumed it was a lost cause, believing Gen Z wouldn't vote.

To understand why, we must look back to the fall of 2022, when widespread protests shook the Islamic Republic like never before. No one expected teenagers, some as young as 15, to become the heart and soul of that uprising. Generation Z was thought to be apolitical—and perhaps they were. But their rebellious spirit and desire to live freely proved far more powerful and inspiring than any ideology or political inclination.

The Zs took to the streets across Iran and became the change they wanted to see –as Gandhi would say –unlike their previous generation who asked for change from those in power. They had little time for their parents’ good old haggling with the regime. They were ready to fight for the ‘basics’ they believed were their right. And fight they did –leading chants, removing and burning headscarves, tearing down state banners and symbols, and of course, popping turbans off the mullahs’ head. They crushed political taboos and paid dearly for it. Young souls like Nika Shakarami and Sarina Esmailzadeh were killed protesting before their 17th birthday. The idea that they would have voted for this or that ‘approved’ candidate tomorrow is laughable.

“I don't even know the names of the candidates,” says Hasti, an 18-year-old preparing for Iran’s centralized university entrance exam. “Why would I follow them when I’m not voting? I don't vote because I have learned that to achieve my rights, I have to fight, not wait for change to come from the ballot box.”

Hasti believes there’s a generational gap –and the little data that exists publicly seems to confirm this: middle-aged Iranians are more likely to vote in this election. “My parents grew up during the [Iran-Iraq] war,” she says. “They were taught to want less, be content, and feel guilty for their desires. They had minimal contact with the world, and their parents were often supportive of the government. It’s different now. I know more than a bit about what's happening in the world. I set my own values, and my parents no longer support the government."

The advocates of voting tell young people like Hasti that the president matters, even though much is decided and implemented by non-elected officials. But it’s not easy convincing someone who sees the severe repression at school or faces suspension or expulsion from university with the slightest sign of dissent.

"Any protest or political activity that’s not in line with the state’s desires is suppressed, whoever the president,” Amin, a first-year university student, says sneering. “Everybody knows that the president and his education minister have no authority. It’s the security agencies who decide how to deal with students. So why are we told that the ‘president matters’ when students are handed harsh sentences during both reformist and hardliner administrations. This powerlessness can be seen in other areas too."

The only candidate who attempted to connect with the Zs early in the campaign was Masoud Pezeshkian, the “moderate” (or reform) candidate who claims to have entered the race to “save” Iran. He’s a surgeon who has previously served as health minister, and member of Iran’s parliament, Majles.

In a half-hour campaign ad titled “Z: A Look at the Demands of the New Generation," young people asked Pezeshkian about entrepreneurship, employment opportunities, and time spent online. The ad included some criticism of Iran's current situation and the widespread desire among the youth to leave the country. However, it left out many critical issues: mandatory hijab, suppressed sexual orientations, compulsory military service—all aspects of a lifestyle that many in Generation Z desire but which are criminalized by their fanatical rulers.

“There is no longer a common language,” one young man said in the campaign ad. And the candidate agreed. I put this to Parsa, an 18-year-old who has decided to train for a trade instead of going to university, and who, unlike many of his peers, has followed the campaign closely.

“The lack of a common language is even more evident in the candidates’ debates,” Parsa said. “In one debate, Pezeshkian said the clashes over hijab in Iran shows parents are not doing a proper job. What he truly demonstrated was his belief that people desiring different lifestyles stem from improper upbringing. He doesn't acknowledge that diversity and differences need to be recognized. While he opposes the methods of the so-called morality police, he supports their intention to impose a singular view over others. And yet, they expect us to vote for this man as the 'progressive' candidate.

The Zs’ parents used to see the ballot box as the only way to reform Iran’s authoritarian system. Elections did matter to them, and it showed in the high turnouts before 2020. For the Zs, however, elections are yet another ‘state-sponsored event’. It has nothing to do with them, as far as they’re concerned. It seems the candidates are aware of this too and have directed all their effort to engage the over-25s. They know full well that the Zs are not coming back.

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