AP |Nasser Karimi: Iran’s presidential election may turn on turnout.
Historically, the more Iranians who cast ballots, the greater the chance a reformist or a moderate like incumbent President Hassan Rouhani will be elected.
However, Rouhani’s bid for another four-year term comes amid apathy and grumbling from an electorate that largely hasn’t seen the benefits of his signature nuclear deal with world powers. As his opponents promise populist cash handouts to the poor, Rouhani needs all the voters he can to cast ballots on May 19. But even some of his supporters say they may stay home.
“I will not vote,” said Hossein Ghasemi, a 35-year-old taxi driver who voted for Rouhani in 2013. “None of them care about our demands and difficulties linked to daily increasing prices.”
Rouhani faces five opponents in the election, but some may well drop out in the coming days to boost the chances of the most-prominent candidates. Eshaq Jahangiri, one of Rouhani’s vice presidents, is expected to leave the race to help his boss.
A reformist dropping out ahead of the 2013 election helped Rouhani edge out a nearly 51 percent majority to win. That election saw turnout of 73 percent, a high figure Rouhani will need to duplicate among Iran’s 56.4 million eligible voters this time around. If no candidate wins an outright majority, the top two candidates will compete in a second round of voting on May 26.
There are already warning signs on the horizon for Rouhani. A report Monday by the state-run IRNA news agency said a survey of over 6,000 eligible voters found over a third saying they would not be voting, while another 46 percent said they would pick their candidate later. It offered no margin of error on the nationwide random survey.
“The main rival of Rouhani is ‘lack of participation’ by people,” said Saeed Leilaz, a Tehran-based political analyst.
That lack of enthusiasm stems from the average Iranian’s major concern: The economy. While the nuclear deal allowed Iran to resume crucial oil exports to Europe and sign billion-dollar airplane deals, chronic unemployment and inflation remain major concerns. Iran’s universities continue to graduate its youth without jobs available.
The economic crisis can be seen in pictures of homeless people sleeping in graves outside of Tehran , images that shocked the nation and Rouhani himself. The poor, both young and old, can be seen in Iranian cities searching trash for food or cleaning car windows for loose change.
Meanwhile, the president found himself heckled and his vehicle beaten by angry miners Sunday as he visited the site of a coal mine disaster that killed at least 42 people.
“I like Rouhani, but I do not want to vote at all,” said Aidin Yahyavi, 32. “Years after graduating, I am still unemployed and my parents support me.”
That’s exactly the kind of voter Rouhani needs to inspire. About a third of eligible voters live in big cities where Rouhani remains popular and where average turnout is around 40 percent. Another third live in smaller, regional cities. In rural areas, where clerics and Iran’s hard-line Revolutionary Guard hold greater sway, turnout reaches 90 percent.
Rouhani faces his most-serious challenge from hard-liner Ebrahim Raisi, a favorite of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Raisi already has the support of two major clerical bodies that declined to endorse anyone in the last presidential election.
Raisi has pledged to support the poor with a monthly cash payment equivalent to $65 – about a sixth of what a menial laborer makes in a month. Tehran mayor Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf, a conservative vying for the presidency, has promised to pay the poor the equivalent of up to $40 monthly.
Iran’s government already pays nearly $12 billion in relief to the poor, which includes $13 monthly cash allotments.
Cash payouts helped win rural voters over to the hard-line former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who was barred by authorities from running in this election. Rouhani’s administration has sought to cut back such cash payments, instead trying to use the money to fund development projects.
“The economy is not in good shape,” said Mehdi Khalaji, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “They trust Rouhani because he succeeded in the nuclear negotiations …. (but) people want to hear about candidates’ capabilities to solve economic problems.”
Influential reformist activist Mostafa Tajzadeh, who spent years in prison after opposing Ahmadinejad’s contested 2009 re-election, worries promises of cash will sway the poor and unemployed. He and other activists fear a runoff as the Iranian middle class and more liberal voters in Tehran so far seem unenthused.
“It is impossible that the army of poor and unemployed people ignore promises for increasing cash for poor people,” he said.
Associated Press writer Jon Gambrell in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, contributed to this report.