DUBAI (Reuters) - Kaveh Rastegari’s desire for more freedoms and Ghorban Norouzi’s worries about money illustrate the fault lines in Iranian society expected to sway a tightly fought presidential election on Friday.
After an unexpectedly close race between President Hassan Rouhani, the pragmatic incumbent, and hardline challenger Ebrahim Raisi, ordinary Iranians on the eve of the vote appeared united only in their weariness with a cheerless status quo.
Many voters preoccupied by bread-and-butter issues said they would probably vote for Shi‘ite cleric Raisi, who has promised handouts for the poor though without saying how this would be funded.
For younger, particularly urban Iranians, many of whom want more democracy and social freedoms almost 40 years after the Islamic Revolution, Rouhani is the sole choice, even if it is one they’re likely to make without real enthusiasm.
“I was 18 years old when I voted for Rouhani four years ago. I was young and inexperienced then. He promised freedom and I voted for him,” Rastegari said in the southern coastal city of Bandar Abbas. “Now, we (still) don’t have freedom and don’t have jobs. But I will still vote for him. We have no other choice.”
Norouzi’s priorities could not be more different. ”My kids cannot eat freedom,“ the municipality employee said in the northern city of Rasht. ”I need to pay the rent. I have to put bread on my family’s table. I will vote for Raisi.”
Taxi driver Ali Mousavi, too, is one of millions of Iranians fretting about the economy’s continued torpor despite the lifting of sanctions under Rouhani’s deal with world powers to curb Iran’s disputed nuclear program. Inflation has dropped to single digits but unemployment is still rising.
“I am not interested in politics. I will vote for the candidate who has promised to triple cash handouts,” the father of three in Tehran said, referring to Raisi.
The withdrawal of other conservative candidates turned Friday’s election into an unexpectedly tight, two-horse race between Rouhani, 68, and Raisi, a 56-year-old protege of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s ultimate authority.
Rouhani, a longtime establishment insider and former nuclear negotiator, won the presidency in 2013, bolstered by the support of many Iranians yearning for less repression.
But rights groups say there has been little, if any, move to bring about greater political and cultural freedoms since Rouhani was elected. Hardliners dominating the judiciary and security services have stood in the way, his defenders say.
For the election, Rouhani has pinned his hopes on people who are undecided or do not usually vote. His campaign was boosted by endorsements from influential political and cultural figures to mobilize young people and women to go to the polls.
“Rouhani has skillfully...permitted Iranian youth to repeat what happened in 2013 on a larger scale – namely projecting their wishes onto a candidate who is not a reformist but (still) embraces reformist rhetoric,” said Behnam Ben Taleblu, senior Iran analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) in Washington.
More than 30 percent of Iran’s 80 million population are under age 30 and women comprise more than half the population.
But apathetic Iranians, many disillusioned by Rouhani’s inability to usher in social change, make up a third category of voter.
An example is Kourosh Sedgi, a 25-year-old student in the central city of Isfahan. “I will not vote. Not anymore,” he said. “We always have to choose between bad and worse in Iran’s elections. Rouhani has failed to bring changes.”
A Tehran psychologist, Maryam Mirzaie, said that even without much evidence of social change and progress on women’s rights, she would respect calls by the opposition leaders and reformist former president Mohammad Khatami to vote for Rouhani.
“I am disappointed with Rouhani. Although not much has been done to improve women’s rights in the past four years, I will vote for him as I respect Khatami, ” said 35-year-old Mirzayi.
Under the Islamic Republic’s law, men can divorce their spouses far more easily than women, while custody of children over the age of seven automatically goes to the father.
Analyst Saeed Leylaz said Rouhani’s main obstacle to re-election would be poor turnout on account of jaded voters.
“But he is way ahead of Raisi. Fearing pressure by hardliners if they win office, voters have mobilized to vote tomorrow,” said Leylaz. “I predict a record participation rate.”
Rouhani remains faithful to Iran’s theocratic system, in which the president’s constitutional powers are limited, with overriding authority in the hands of the unelected Khamenei.
But the emergence of Raisi, backed by the elite, hardline Revolutionary Guards, has raised concern for the future of the nuclear deal and its potential to deliver economic recovery.
A hardline win, analysts say, will entail support from voters beyond the clerical elite’s traditional constituency among religiously devout, mainly less well-off Iranians.
“The Guards want a comeback, that is why they will do everything to help Raisi win, including (exerting) their influence in rural areas, ” said a senior Iranian official, who asked not to be named.
Sidelined by the nuclear deal, the Guards hope that a Raisi victory would let them claw back economic and political clout lost in the complex theocratic and republican power structure.
While the lifting of global sanctions in 2016 reconnected Iran with the international financial system crucial to trade, lingering unilateral U.S. sanctions tied to human rights and terrorism issues have spooked many potential foreign investors.
Still, many Iranians see little choice but to stick with Rouhani’s plan for progress, hoping it will eventually pay off.
“I will vote for Rouhani because I want Iran to continue its interaction with the international community,” said Reza Amin Sharafi, 47, a businessman in the northwestern city of Tabriz.
Raisi says Iran does not need foreign investment to prosper and touts a “resistance economy”. Some critics say this is designed to protect politically connected domestic businesses.
Critics also question his record in the judiciary when he was one of four sharia (Islamic law) judges who ordered the execution of thousands of jailed dissidents in the late 1980s.
“I will vote because I don’t want Raisi to be elected. I don’t want more social pressure and more isolation,” Samira Vaseghi, a 23-year-old university student, said in Tabriz.
Editing by William Maclean and Mark Heinrich