MASHAD, Iran — Iranians vote Friday for a new president to succeed the controversial Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, but many voters question the value of their ballot, convinced that no elected government can solve Irans economic woes and end its diplomatic isolation.
In a packed sports hall in Mashad, Irans second biggest city, candidate Hasan Rowhani on Wednesday night urged the thousands indoors and an overflow of 40,000 outside to end the extremism of Ahmadinejads eight years by voting and convincing 10 others to vote with them.
The current government has turned every opportunity into a threat, said Rowhani, a moderate-conservative clergyman endorsed by Iranian reformists as their best chance this year. I promise all of you that the era of extremism will end.
If his supporters turn out, Rowhani, 64, is likely to be a top finisher in the six-man race, with Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf, the popular mayor of Tehran, his main competition. If neither receives 50 percent, a runoff will be held June 21.
A sampling of merchants and shoppers in Mashads bazaar suggests turning out Rowhani voters might be the big challenge.
According to many residents of this city of 2.4 million, turnout is closely linked to the perception that the presidency is a weak post, subservient to the countrys real supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khameini. That realization might keep potential Rowhani voters home.
Yassir, 31, a spice vendor in Mashads main bazaar, is one of those skeptics. Right now, he has no plans to vote, though he allowed for a possible last-minute change of heart to support Rowhani.
The president has only so much power. He can only make small changes to policies, said Yassir, who like others interviewed would not give his last name, for fear of retribution. The supreme leader sets the general policies.
Four years ago, Yassir was one of the many merchants in Mashad who wore a green wristband, signaling his support for reformist leader Mir Hossein Mousavi, who, his supporters claim, was deprived of victory because of fraud in the election that gave Ahmadinejad his second term.
We dont have a democracy. We have a hidden dictatorship, said Sooroosh, 25, another merchant. Four years ago, they didnt honor my vote. No one in my family will vote this time.
Ehsan, 29, another merchant, said he would vote, but for Qalibaf, partly because of his resume, which includes a term as commander of the air force of the Republican Guard, a militia that reports to the supreme leader.
Based on his military experience, we trust him more. He looks more determined, Ehsan said. He said he hoped that Qalibaf would improve Irans foreign relations, ease the Western sanctions and reduce unemployment.
People dont live in Iran, said Mohammad, 40, a taxi driver behind the wheel of a beaten up old Iranian-made car. They just survive. Surprisingly, he said he planned to vote.
In Iran, the reformists main message is that they will support the Iranian constitutions guarantees of human rights and womens rights. Internationally, they promise a change of tone, though not necessarily a change in policy something that conversations indicate Iranians long for after the Ahmadinejad years, when the outgoing president at one point indicated he did not accept Israels right to exist and the country was at loggerheads with the United Nations and much of the world over its enrichment of uranium that Washington fears could be used in a future nuclear weapon.
Still, almost every Iranian a McClatchy reporter spoke with was highly critical of Israel for failing to end its occupation and recognize a Palestinian state.
More pressing for many are Irans domestic problems, which go well beyond the economic crisis caused by international sanctions imposed to try to pressure Iran to end its enrichment program. Those U.S.-led sanctions have cut Irans oil revenue and led to an 80 percent devaluation of its currency, the rial. Inflation, officially estimated at 30 percent, could in fact be twice that level, many say.
But structural economic issues are more serious, according to participants in a panel discussion Monday in Tehran.
Because of the countrys enormous dependence on oil 80 percent of economic turnover is oil-related, according to Reza Roostaazad, a university president who is an adviser to another presidential candidate, Saeed Jalili, who is Irans lead nuclear negotiator and a hard-line candidate for president.
The government is malfunctioning, Roostaazad said in a blunt assessment that has many adherents.
Others on the panel spoke of thousands of farm villages being abandoned even as Iran was importing wheat from abroad, of university graduates unable to find jobs, and of a dependency on foreign oil services firms to explore and exploit the countrys vast mineral resources.
But Jalilis advisers and those of the other candidates have been vague about the solutions, other than to promise less belligerent rhetoric and more diplomacy.
One thing that went largely without criticism was the election rules, which to give enormous power to Ayatollah Khamenei. The 12-member Guardian Council, which is under his authority, chose the candidates from hundreds that applied, using as criteria whether they have administrative ability, a good past record, are trustworthy and pious, as well as a belief in the fundamental principles of the country.
That same Guardian Council is responsible for monitoring how the election is carried out. Foreign observers are not allowed to watch the polls, although reporters are supposed to be able to visit any polling place in Fridays voting. A new Central Elections Board has been set up this year to supervise the Ministry of the Interior, which actually implements the election process, but the new board also reports to the Guardian Council.
Rowhani is trying to capitalize on the anger that greeted a crackdown on reformists that took place after Ahmadinejads victory in 2009, which reformists alleged was fraudulent.
Were talking about running a country, not a police station, Rowhani declared at the sports hall rally. The people are the real owners of this country.
Change the world, his mostly youthful supporters chanted excitedly at the rally, held in sweltering conditions and fraught with tension. A large police contingent lined the street outside, and organizers had to demand that attendees desist from chanting Political prisoners must be freed. The slogan reminded everyone that two main reformist leaders, Mousavi and Mahdi Karroubi, are still under house arrest.
Rowhani was adamant at Wednesdays rally that the outcome was not pre-determined. Some are using slogans that the president has been appointed before the election, he told the crowd. Its a big lie.
Then he turned to another big lie that there would be a major foreign policy shift were he to become president. Some say that if reformists take the government, they will surrender to the West, he said.
Its a big lie, the crowd chanted back.
Rowhanis prospects were boosted earlier this week by the withdrawal Tuesday of another reformist candidate, Mohammad Reza Aref, and by endorsements from former reformist presidents Mohammad Khatami and Hashemi Rafsanjani.
Qalibaf, whose own reputation as a technocrat has suffered following revelations of his role in previous crackdowns against reformists, has suffered because two other conservatives refused to withdraw and coalesce behind his candidacy.
What to expect as Friday voting arrived was anyones guess. Certainly, there was reason for the reformists to be concerned. Shortly before midnight, police closed down Rowhanis Tehran headquarters and also raided a regional office in Busheir, the site of an Iranian nuclear reactor, and roughed up his supporters there, his website said.
CORRECTION: The spelling of the last name of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (NOT Khameini) was corrected in the sixth paragraph.
Email: email@example.com; Twitter: @roygutmanmcc