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In a pessimistic mood, Iranians vote for a new president

A couple filled out their ballot papers at a polling station during the presidential elections in Tehran, Iran, on Friday. Iranians voted Friday in a presidential election dominated by a hard-line protege of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei after authorities disqualified nearly all of his strongest competition, leading to what appeared to be a low turnout fueled by apathy and calls for a boycott.Vahid Salemi/Associated Press

TEHRAN, Iran — The line outside the Tehran polling station was short and sedate Friday morning, nothing like the energized down-the-block crowd that usually turns out for presidential elections in Iran.

But when Abdolnasser Hemmati, the moderate in the race, showed up to vote, the sidewalk outside the polling station, set up at the Hosseinieh Ershad religious institute, suddenly crackled to life.

“Your views are useless for this country,” one heckler shouted at Hemmati, the former governor of Iran’s central bank, holding up his phone to immortalize the moment.

“You’re the hope of our nation,” a woman yelled to the candidate, trying to drown out the heckler.

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Iran’s presidential race has been marked, more than anything else, by a lack of interest: Many voters said they would not bother to cast ballots in an election that they feel has been manipulated in favor of the hard-line conservative candidate, Ebrahim Raisi, Iran’s judiciary chief, who is close to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Even if they had more choice in the matter, previous elections all ended the same way no matter the winner, many Tehran residents said — with prices and rents shooting up, employment falling, and pessimism taking hold.

The lines of voters at several polling sites across the capital on Friday were much shorter than in previous presidential election years, though the ongoing coronavirus pandemic also likely affected turnout. The Iranian news media reported that as of 5 p.m., voter participation was at 23 percent. Results are expected Saturday.

Beneath that listless surface, however, is a country churning with rage and hope, bitterness and faith.

Some of those who leaned liberal could not quite bear to shut themselves out of the vote, even as their friends or relatives boycotted it to protest the system.

“We didn’t vote because of Hemmati himself,” said Milad, 34, a bank employee who came to the Hosseinieh Ershad polling station to vote for Hemmati. Many voters refused to give full names out of fear of speaking openly about politics. “We voted because we wanted to show the other side that there is still a voice of opposition in Iran. A weak voice of opposition is better than no voice at all.”

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Voters on each side agreed, broadly speaking, on the biggest issues facing the country: corruption, economic mismanagement, and the US sanctions that are intensifying Iran’s economic misery.

But if the moderate opposition was divided over whether to vote, the conservatives who showed up to cast ballots were united behind Raisi and, more important, the Islamic government his candidacy had come to stand for. (Raisi’s campaign posters often feature him alongside Khamenei and General Qassem Soleimani, the Iranian commander whose death in a US airstrike last year brought crowds of mourners onto the streets.)

“Despite all the shortages and shortcomings, we love our nation, and we will defend it to the last drop of blood,” said Marziyeh Gorji, 34, who works in a government office and said she had voted for Raisi because of his ties to revolutionary figures and his experience. “The people are upset, I understand that. But not voting is not the solution.”

She motioned to her 5-year-old twin sons, who wore buttons featuring Soleimani’s face.

“I will raise them to be like General Soleimani,” she said.

The morning’s voting was marred by widespread reports of electronic voting systems malfunctioning and going offline from polling stations across Iran, according to Tasnim news agency, which is affiliated with Iran’s Revolutionary Guard. As polls opened Friday morning, voters showed up to hear that they could not vote, and multiple polling stations had to delay their opening by more than an hour, Tasnim reported.

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“This is an epidemic of ballot boxes malfunctioning now,” said Kian Abdollahi, Tasnim’s editor in chief, during a live election report on Clubhouse, the audio-only social media app. “This is unacceptable given concerns about low election turnout.”

Tehran’s governor confirmed that there were technical problems with electronic voting systems at 79 polling stations across the capital.

It was not immediately clear what had caused the problems.