For more than two decades, Hossein Yazdi, a political activist, has campaigned in Iranian presidential elections, 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 all but given up. This time round, he will not be putting up posters or knocking on doors explaining the merits of his preferred candidate. He will not even vote.
Like many younger activists, he has become disillusioned with politics and the line-up of candidates for the June 18 election has only reinforced this sense of hopelessness. Leading moderate candidates have been barred and the two reform candidates have yet to gain momentum. With centrist president Hassan Rouhani due to step down after two terms, the hardline frontrunner and judiciary chief, Ebrahim Raisi, should win easily if turnout is low, according to analysts.
“The reformist movement has hit a complete dead end and since the last unrest we realised 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 in which hundreds of demonstrators were killed.
The sense of deflation began to set in after then-president Donald Trump in 2018 pulled the US out of the nuclear accord Iran had signed with world powers and imposed swingeing sanctions. A year earlier, more than 70 per cent of registered voters had turned out amid hopes Rouhani would re-engage with the west. But Trump’s move weakened reformists and emboldened hardliners, who saw it as proof that Iran could never trust western powers.
As a social media campaign is urging people not to vote, many analysts predict the election will have one of the lowest turnouts in the Islamic republic’s history — a blow to a regime that rests its legitimacy on a high electoral turnout. For many, refusing to vote is an important act of defiance.
“We have to put civil resistance on our agenda by boycotting this election, for instance, to show off our power and tell the regime, ‘we don’t give you the legitimacy to talk to the world on our behalf when you do not meet our minimum demands like free and fair elections’,” said Yazdi.
This election is a moment of reckoning for reformers, who first gained ground in the 1980s in the wake of a deadly war with Iraq. The growing crackdown on dissidents in the decade that followed the 1979 revolution left many disillusioned and eager to push for reform to ensure the survival of the theocratic state.
The high point for the reformist movement was the election of Mohammad Khatami as president in 1997. Reformist achievements include the relaxation of the requirement for women to wear a hijab in public as well as occasionally successful protests by workers and pensioners to improve their rights. But since Khatami’s rule, hardliners have repeatedly blocked attempts at reform and younger politicians doubt conservatives in the elite Revolutionary Guard and judiciary will allow further reform.
With Khatami warning of a threat to democracy, the authorities’ willingness to tolerate a low turnout indicates that their focus is on expanding Iran’s regional influence and ballistic missile programme, rather than on gaining public trust, analysts said.
While previous generations of reformists helped establish the theocratic state and have substantial business interests, this generation is different, said Mehdi Mahmoudian. The 44-year-old political activist has spent more than 10 years in jail over his alleged anti-regime activities. He was recently sentenced to five years in prison for organising protests against the shooting down of a Ukrainian jet by Iran last year.
“The second and third generations seek more structural changes and are less attached 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 have to capitalise on social movements,” said Mahmoudian. “We should find ways to convince people that freedom is not a luxurious western commodity, rather 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 that faced with a “legitimacy crisis” the republic’s rulers would have “no other choice but to go for inner reforms” of domestic and foreign policy.
“The shift in the reformist movement may not happen in this election, 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 nominee who truly represented them was Mostafa Tajzadeh. A reformist former deputy interior minister and a political prisoner for seven years, Tajzadeh called for “normalisation of ties” with the US, among other things. But Tajzadeh was disqualified by Iran’s hardline Guardian Council, the constitutional watchdog.
Young reformists have already paid dearly for their resistance. Many of them have lost jobs and served time in jail. “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 the long view, seeing their fight within the context of Iran’s struggle, including the battle to overthrow the Shah dynasty that ruled the country until the revolution.
“It is 100 years since Iranians have been fighting for democracy. I learnt about democracy from my father and my 17-year-old daughter learnt it from me,” said Yazdi.
“We are conscious that this is a long, difficult battle but we have no other choice but to break the current dead end. And the system must choose between swallowing democracy or collapsing from within.”