A political activist, Hossein Yazdi has campaigned in Iran’s presidential election for more than two decades, determined to bring about change in the conservative theocratic state.
But now 42-year-old Yazdi, who was born a few months before the revolution that created the Islamic republic in 1979, has given up. This time, he won’t be putting up posters or knocking on doors to explain the merits of his favorite candidate. He won’t even vote.
Like many younger activists, he has become disillusioned with politics and the lineup of candidates for the June 18 elections has only reinforced this sense of hopelessness. Leading moderate candidates have been ruled out and the two reform candidates have not yet gained momentum. With centrist president Hassan Rouhani due to step down after two terms, hardline frontrunner and head of the judiciary, Ebrahim Raisi, should easily win when turnout is low, according to analysts.
“The reformist movement has come to a complete deadlock and since the latest unrest we have realized that this system cannot be reformed,” Yazdi said in a video call from the city of Isfahan, referring to widespread protests in 2019 against rising fuel prices as protesters were killed.
The sense of deflation began to build after then-President Donald Trump in 2018 withdrew the US from the nuclear deal Iran had signed with world powers and imposed massive sanctions. A year earlier, more than 70 percent of registered voters had come out in the hope that Rouhani would reconnect with the west. But Trump’s move weakened reformers and encouraged hardliners, who saw it as proof that Iran could never trust the Western powers.
As a social media campaign urges people not to vote, many analysts predict that the election will have one of the lowest turnouts in the history of the Islamic republic – a blow to a regime that rests its legitimacy on high electoral turnout. For many, refusing to vote is an important act of defiance.
“We need to put civil resistance on our agenda by boycotting these elections, for example to show off our power and say to the regime, ‘we are not giving you the legitimacy to speak to the world on our behalf if you don’t meet our minimum requirements, such as free and fair elections, ”said Yazdi.
These elections are a settlement point for reformers, who first gained ground in the 1980s after a deadly war with Iraq. The increasing crackdown on dissidents in the decade following the 1979 revolution left many disillusioned and eager to implement reforms to ensure the survival of the theocratic state.
The culmination of the reformist movement was the election of Mohammad Khatami as president in 1997. Reform achievements include the relaxation of the requirement for women to wear hijab in public and occasional successful protests by workers and pensioners to defend their rights. improve. But since Khatami’s rule, hardliners have repeatedly blocked reform efforts and young politicians question whether conservatives in the elite Revolutionary Guard Corps and the judiciary will allow further reforms.
With Khatami warning of a threat to democracy, the authorities’ willingness to tolerate low turnout indicates that their focus is on increasing Iran’s regional influence and ballistic missile program, rather than winning public confidence, analysts said.
While previous generations of reformists have helped establish theocratic state and have significant business interests, this generation is different, Mehdi Mahmoudian said. The 44-year-old political activist has spent more than 10 years in prison for his alleged anti-regime activities. He was recently sentenced to five years in prison for organizing protests against Iran’s shooting down of a Ukrainian plane last year.
“The second and third generations are looking for more structural changes and are less attached to the ideologies of the Islamic republic,” said Mahmoudian.
Younger activists say there is no way to change the republic from within, but they want a peaceful pursuit of the establishment of a democratic system.
“We must take advantage of social movements,” said Mahmoudian. “We need to find ways to convince people that freedom is not a luxury Western good, but rather their urgent need for better living conditions, better housing and more bread,” he said.
Eftekhar Barzegarian, a 39-year-old reformist in the conservative city of Mashhad, said the republic’s rulers faced with a “crisis of legitimacy” “would have no choice but to go for internal reforms” of domestic and foreign policy.
“The shift in the reformist movement may not take place during these elections, but it will be based on the search for democracy and a focus on social justice and freedom in the future,” he said.
For many reformists, Mostafa Tajzadeh was the only nominee to truly represent them. Tajzadeh, a reformist former deputy interior minister and political prisoner for seven years, called, among other things, for “normalization of ties” with the US. But Tajzadeh was disqualified by the Iranian Guardian Council, the constitutional watchdog.
Young reformers have already paid a heavy price for their resistance. Many of them have lost their jobs and spent time in prison. The problem, however, is our financial situation, as most of us struggle to make ends meet and rely on our families to survive. Many activists remain anonymous to keep their jobs and not to let the regime take their families hostage, ”said Mahmoudian.
For some, it helps to take a long-term view and see their struggles in the context of Iran’s struggle, including the struggle to overthrow the Shah dynasty that ruled the country right up to the revolution.
“It has been 100 years since Iranians fought for democracy. I learned democracy from my father and my 17-year-old daughter learned it from me, ”said Yazdi.
“We are aware that this is a long, difficult battle, but we have no choice but to break the current dead end. And the system has to choose between gobbling up democracy or collapsing from within. “