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Iran election race narrows but fears persist of low turnout

Associated Press

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Iran grappled with fears of low voter turnout two days ahead of its presidential election as the race narrowed on Wednesday into a showdown between the country’s hard-line judiciary chief and moderate former Central Bank chief.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei warned of a foreign conspiracy to undermine the vote while the country’s Interior Ministry acknowledged a startling lack of competition that was turning the election into a coronation for Khamenei’s protégé, hard-liner Ebrahim Raisi.

In an extensive televised speech, Khamenei railed against the media’s grim portrayal of the poll and tried to cajole people into voting, warning of “increased pressure” from Iran’s “enemies” if citizens stay away from the polls on Friday.

Iran’s clerical vetting body had barred a range of prominent reformists and key allies of relatively moderate President Hassan Rouhani to run in this election, giving the green light to just Raisi and several low-profile candidates, mostly hard-liners with little popular support. The Guardian Council’s evisceration of any viable challengers has sparked widespread criticism and fueled calls for a boycott.

Voter apathy was running deep even before the disqualifications, due in part to the devastated economy and subdued campaigning amid a surge in coronavirus cases. The state-linked Iranian Student Polling Agency most recently projected a 42% turnout from the country’s 59 million eligible voters, which would be a historic low.

At a press conference, the interior minister admitted it was no real contest.

“The actual competition in the elections is not a very serious one … considering the actions of the Guardian Council,” said Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli. “We can say that the reasons are the weak competition and the coronavirus situation.”

That left Khamenei and top officials the task to try lure the disillusioned public back to the polls. Iranian authorities have promoted voter turnout as validation for their style of governance after the 1979 Islamic Revolution installed the clerically overseen system that endures today.

Khamenei lashed out against Iran’s “enemies” for discouraging people from voting. He accused “American and British media and their mercenaries” of “killing themselves to question the elections and weaken popular participation.”

He also acknowledged that many ordinary Iranians, impoverished and battered by years of heavy American sanctions, may not see the benefit of political participation.

“But not voting because of (economic) complaints is not correct,” Khamenei said.

Meanwhile, two hard-line candidates withdrew Wednesday, throwing their support behind presumed front-runner Raisi. The only reformist candidate in the vote also dropped out, making former Central Bank chief Abdolnasser Hemmati the main moderate contender. Such dropouts are common in Iranian presidential elections in order to boost the chances of similar candidates. No campaigning is allowed today, 24 hours before polls open.

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