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Iran election 2017

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Iranians vote for a less controlled future

Voting in the Hosseinie Ershad Mosque in Tehran Jan van der Made

A long row of voters snakes around the corner of Shariatee Street in the middle-class Mirdamad district in North Tehran. In the Hosseinie Ershad Mosque, hundreds of people are grouping together to register and cast their vote. Iran’s election day concludes a month of intensive campaigning, televised debates, and rallies that seem to have divided the nation

“This election is like a referendum on two ideas,” says Mohammad Tavasoli, who was the first mayor of Tehran after the 1979 revolution and he cast his vote in the Hosseine Ershad Mosque.

“One believes in freedom, in democracy and human rights. The other side does not confirm this.”

Many establishment figures pass by the mosque, to observe the process, or to vote themselves.

Earlier in the morning, reformist candidate Hassan Rouhani himself paid a visit as did 85-year-old Ebrahim Yazdi - mobbed by local journalists -  who served as Iran’s second Foreign Minister after he had spent time with Ayatollah Khomeini in exile in Paris.

Ex Foreign Minister Dr. Ebrahim Yazdi, who lived in exile in France together with Ayatollah Khomeini Jan van der Made

He seems happy with the massive turnout of voters in the mosque.

“It shows that the people are not indifferent. They want to be part of the game. So they have come, and they vote,” he says in fluent English, noting that “more people are participating in the political process.”

Voting process

Voters have a ballot with a unique number. They vote for one of 4 presidential candidates and 21 local councilors. But the voting itself is not very secret. There are no closed boots where people can fill in the form in privacy. Some people sit down together or with three, discuss the ballot papers before filling it in.

But it takes a lot of patience before voters are able to even ascend the stairs leading to the inside of the mosque and go to through the entrance that is guarded by military with Kalashnikovs to head for the tables with election officials who are waiting for them.

Voters comparing notes during Iran elections - no secrets Jan van der Made

“I’ve been here for about one hour and I don’t know how long it will go on,” says Banatshe Vakilian, who works as an optometrist in Tehran. “But I will not give up, of course not,” she says.

“It is time to take the future in our own hands, we are responsible for what is going on in our society, our parents changed it, and we are going to change it in our way.”

But what can be done to counter the influence of the clerical elite that pulls the strings behind the scenes?

“We are going to stand in front of the people [who] are so religious, and we just want to say that we exist, we are ordinary people, we want to wear what we want and we just want that they respect our opinion,” she says.

Women candidates?

About 100 women applied to become official presidential candidates of a total of over 1600 applicants.

But not a single woman made it through the vetting process, controlled by the Council of Guardians who in the end selected six male candidates. “We have a long way to go to change the situation,” says Vakilian. But maybe in eight years we’ll have some women that are candidates. And we will vote for them.”

Voter Banatshe wants to fight for her rights Jan van der Made

For now, progressive voters have to do with Rouhani, who is seen as the most liberal.

“We are voting to defend our rights here,” says Pejah Pourahmad, “the other candidate is going to be disrespectful to many of our rights, he is an extremist, and he is against everybody except Muslims, and women don’t matter to him,” she says, talking about opposition candidate, the conservative Ebrahim Raisi. What if he wins?

“Basically we are just going to go away from Iran if he becomes the president, as many people did in the election in 1988,” she says. “We are not going to be free to do what we do, which is not much, but [then] the job situation is going to change and we won’t be able to work as much as we do as women,” she says.

Voter Pejah waiting in line to cast her ballot at the Hosseinie Ershad Mosque in Tehran 19 May 2017 Jan van der Made

Another voter, adds that he “doesn’t want to go back to the situation we had eight years ago,” with “bad decisions, anarchy and bad relations with other countries.”

Voters interviewed were predominantly supporters of the incumbent president. And even in the other side of Tehran, in a polling station at the Orvatolvosgha High School on Valiasr Street in the poorer Monirieh District, people, if they wanted to talk, indicated their support for the Reformist candidate.