For more than two decades, Hossein Yazdi, a political activist, has campaigned in the Iranian presidential election, determined to bring about changes in the conservative theocratic state.
But now Yazdi, 42, who was born a few months before the revolution that created the Islamic republic in 1979, has abandoned virtually everything. This time, he will not put up posters or knock on doors to explain the merits of his favorite candidate. He will not even vote.
Like many younger activists, he has been disillusioned with politics and the formation of candidates for the June 18 elections has only reinforced this sense of hope. Main moderate candidates have been banned and the two candidates for reform have not yet gained momentum. With centrist President Hassan Rouhani, who will have to resign after two terms, hardline leader and chief justice Ebrahim Raisi should win easily if turnout is low, analysts say.
“The reform movement has reached a dead end and from the last unrest we realized that this system could not be reformed,” Yazdi said in a video call from the city of Isfahan, referring to widespread protests in 2019 against the rising price of fuel in which hundreds of protesters died.
The feeling of deflation began to set in after then-President Donald Trump in 2018 withdrew the United States from the nuclear deal Iran had signed with world powers and imposed heavy sanctions. A year earlier, more than 70% of registered voters had turned out amid hopes that Rouhani would re-engage with the West. But the Trump movement weakened reformists and encouraged leaders, who saw it as proof that Iran could never trust Western powers.
As a campaign on social media 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 supports its legitimacy in a high electoral participation. 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 our power and tell the regime,‘ We don’t give you the legitimacy to speak to the world on our behalf when you don’t meet our minimum requirements. , such as free and fair elections, “Yazdi said.
These elections are a moment of reckoning for the reformers, who first gained ground in the 1980s after a deadly war with Iraq. The growing repression of dissidents in the decade following the 1979 revolution left many disillusioned and eager to push for reform to ensure the survival of the theocratic state.
The heyday of the reform movement was the election of Mohammad Khatami as president in 1997. Reform successes include relaxing the requirement for women to wear a hijab in public, as well as occasional successful protests by workers and pensioners to improve. their rights. But since the Khatami government, leaders have repeatedly blocked attempts at reform, and younger politicians doubt that the conservative elite of the Revolutionary Guard and the judiciary will allow for later reforms.
With Khatami’s warning of a threat to democracy, the authorities ’willingness to tolerate low turnout indicates that their focus is on expanding Iran’s regional influence and ballistic missile program, rather than of gaining public confidence, analysts said.
While previous generations of reformists helped establish the theocratic state and had substantial commercial interests, this generation is different, Mehdi Mahmoudian said. The 44-year-old political activist has spent more than ten years in prison for his alleged activities against the regime. He was recently sentenced to five years in prison for organizing protests against the downing of a Ukrainian plane by Iran last year.
“The second and third generation are looking for more structural changes and are less tied to the ideologies of the Islamic republic,” Mahmoudian said.
Younger activists say there is no way to change the republic from within, but they want a peaceful push for the establishment of a democratic system.
“We need to capitalize on social movements,” Mahmoudian said. “We should find ways to convince people that freedom is not a luxury Western commodity, but it is their urgent need to have better living conditions, better housing and more bread,” he said.
Eftekhar Barzegarian, a 39-year-old reformist in the conservative city of Mashhad, said in the face of a “crisis of legitimacy” the republic’s rulers would have “no choice but to bet on domestic reforms” of domestic and foreign policy.
“The change in the reformist movement may not take place in these elections, but it will be based on seeking democracy and focusing on social justice and freedom in the future,” he said.
For many reformists, the only candidate who really represented them was Mostafa Tajzadeh. Tajzadeh, a former reformist interior minister and political prisoner for seven years, called for the “normalization of ties” with the US, among other things. But Tajzadeh was disqualified by Iran’s guard council, the dog of constitutional surveillance.
Young reformers have already paid dearly for their resistance. Many of them have lost their jobs and served their time in prison. “The problem, however, is our financial situation, as most of us struggle to get to both ends and trust our families to survive. Many activists remain anonymous to keep their jobs and not let the regime take their families hostage, ”Mahmoudian said.
For some, it helps to have a long-term vision, seeing their struggle in the context of the struggle of Iran, including the battle to overthrow the Sha dynasty that ruled the country until the revolution.
“Iranians have been fighting for democracy for 100 years. I learned about my father’s democracy and my 17-year-old daughter learned it from me, ”said Yazdi.
“We are aware that this is a long and difficult battle, but we have no choice but to break the dead end. And the system must choose between swallowing democracy or collapsing from within.”