Iran voted Friday in a presidential election tipped in the favour of a hard-line protege of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, fuelling public apathy and sparking calls for a boycott in the Islamic Republic.
State-linked opinion polling and analysts put hard-line judiciary chief Ebrahim Raisi as the dominant front-runner in a field of just four candidates. Former Central Bank chief, Abdolnasser Hemmati, is running as the race's moderate candidate but hasn't inspired the same support as outgoing President Hassan Rouhani, who is term limited from seeking the office again.
If elected, Raisi would be the first serving Iranian president sanctioned by the US government even before entering office over his involvement in the mass execution of political prisoners in 1988, as well as his time as the head of Iran's internationally criticized judiciary - one of the world's top executioners.
It also would firmly put hard-liners in control across the Iranian government as negotiations in Vienna continue over trying to save Tehran's tattered nuclear deal with world powers, as it enriches uranium to the closest point yet to weapons-grade levels.
Tensions remain high with both the U.S. and Israel, which is believed to have carried out a series of attacks targeting Iranian nuclear sites and assassinating the scientist who created its military atomic program decades earlier.
Polls opened at 7 am local time for the vote, which has seen widespread public apathy after a panel under Khamenei barred hundreds of candidates, including reformists and those aligned with Rouhani.
Khamenei cast the ceremonial vote from Tehran, where he urged the public to take part.
"Through the participation of the people the country and the Islamic ruling system will win great points in the international arena, but the ones who benefit first are the people themselves," Khamenei said.
"Go ahead, choose and vote."
But by mid-day, turnout appeared far lower than Iran's last presidential election in 2017. State television offered tight shots of polling places, several of which seemed to have only a handful of voters in the election's early hours. Those passing by several polling places in Tehran said they similarly saw few voters.
Raisi, wearing a black turban that identifies him in Shiite tradition as a direct descendant of Islam's Prophet Muhammad, voted from a mosque in southern Tehran, waving to those gathered to cast ballots. The cleric acknowledged in comments afterward that some may be "so upset that they don't want to vote." "I beg everyone, the lovely youths, and all Iranian men and women speaking any accent or language from any region and with any political views, to go and vote and cast their ballots," Raisi said.
There are more than 59 million eligible voters in Iran, a nation home to over 80 million people. However, the state-linked Iranian Student Polling Agency has estimated a turnout of just 42 per cent, which would be the lowest ever since the country's 1979 Islamic Revolution.
Fears about a low turnout have some warning Iran may be turning away from being an Islamic Republic - a government with elected civilian leadership overseen by a supreme leader from its Shiite clergy - to a country more tightly governed by its supreme leader.
As supreme leader, Khamenei has final say on all matters of state and oversees its defense and atomic programme.
"This is not acceptable," said former President Mohammad Khatami, a reformist who sought to change its theocracy from inside during his eight years in office.
"How would this conform to being a republic or Islamic?" For his part, Khamenei warned of "foreign plots" seeking to depress turnout in a speech Wednesday. A flyer handed out Wednesday on the streets of Tehran by hard-liners followed in that thought, bearing the image of Revolutionary Guard Gen Qassem Soleimani, who was killed in a US drone strike in 2020.
"If we do not vote: Sanctions will be heavier, the US and Israel will be encouraged to attack Iran," the leaflet warned.
"Iran will be under shadow of a Syrian-style civil war and the ground will be ready for assassination of scientists and important figures." State television also aired footage of a polling station set up by Soleimani's grave in the city of Kerman. Poll workers also wore gloves and masks due to the coronavirus pandemic, with some wiping down ballot boxes with disinfectants.
"We cannot leave our destiny in the hands of foreigners and let them decide for us and create conditions that will be absolutely harmful for us," Tehran voter Shahla Pazouki said. "We should change our country's situation by cooperation with each other." Yet the disqualification of candidates seemed aimed at preventing anyone other than Raisi from winning the election, as Khatami did in 1997 by surprisingly beating a hard-liner favoured by Khamenei.