Given the long queues and high voter turnout across Iran, the cut-off time for casting votes had to be extended multiple times.
Tehran, Iran: Even before the doors were opened on voting day for Iran’s presidential election on Friday, polling stations in Tehran’s affluent areas saw waiting voters. As they day progressed, lines stretched and snaked around city corners.
By the end of a 16-hour polling period which ended at midnight, the Iranian capital had seen voters thronging polling stations in unprecedented numbers. Informal figures set the voter turnout at 5.7 million or 63 % in Tehran, raising hope among Hassan Rouhani’s supporters of a win by a big margin in the presidential elections. This was a huge increase for the city, with a voter turnout of close to 40% in the 2013 presidential candidates.
Around 56 million Iranians were eligible to vote – and over 40 million did. This would make it almost equivalent to the 2013’s voter turnout of 72%. However, till four hours after the doors were closed at over 63,000 polling stations around Iran, there will still no official voting figures from the Iranian authorities.
Voting day began at 8 am, when Iranian television and radio broadcasted the face and voice of the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamanei, who cast the first vote. The streets of Tehran were empty of traffic and shop shutters were down as voting day also fell on Iran’s weekly holiday, when the sprawling metropolis usually slows down.
As Iran’s largest urban population centre and known for its reformist outlook, Tehran’s performance was key for both candidates.
In the southern suburb of Tehran Shahr-e-rey, voters and pilgrims were synonymous at the shrine of Imam Abdol Azim. Ballot boxes had been placed in several areas in the vast complex, where people lined up with their national identity booklet.
At the gates, the lines early in the morning did not have more than 20 people. But there was double the line inside the inner courtyard, with two separate queues for men and women.
Fifty-year-old Fatami, a retired teacher had just put in her two ballot papers – a short one for the presidential race and another bigger one for the city council – into two plastic boxes with sealed blue lids.
“We came here for pilgrimage and decided that we can vote here,” she said, clutching her black chador. Iranian citizens can vote in any polling booth, as long as they possess a national identity booklet.
Ebrahim Raisi, who has turned out to be a tough opponent during the divisive, heated campaign, was the name that she had written down on the ballot paper. “He is the best option. He will do more according to Islam, principles of the revolution and the Supreme Leader’s path,” she said. Her husband, who stood nearby counting a rosary, had also voted for Raisi.
Later in the day, a video was released on conservative-aligned Iranian news agency, Fars, showing Rouhani’s brother going to cast his vote at the shrine and being heckled. The conservatives (or principalists, as they are called in Iran) had tried to corner Rouhani over the alleged corruption of his brother, Hossein Fereydoun, an issue that was also raised in the televised presidential debates.
South Tehran, with its relatively impoverished residents, has always been a conservative stronghold. However, many of the south Tehran neighbourhoods had gone to Rouhani in 2013. Therefore, the polling pattern in the southern suburbs were closely watched, to see if Raisi would garner enough votes to close the gap with Rouhani, as predicted by several opinion polls.
Nearly all the voters who spoke to The Wire in three polling stations in south Tehran had voted for Raisi.
In a small neighbourhood mosque on south Tehran’s Khorasani Square, there were around ten people in a line in the covered front courtyard at around 9:50 am.
“Last time, I voted for (Mohammad Bagher) Qalibaf, this time for Raisi. This is because he (Raisi) takes care of poor people and lives a simple life,” said Nasir Khani, 42, a fabric seller. “I think that most of the south part of Tehran are followers of Raisi. They didn’t believe that Rouhani has achieved any good in four years”.
Looking around at the small crowd, he was not too worried that the turnout didn’t seem too big. “It has always been like this at this time of the morning. People are sleeping. They will come out in the evening,” Khani said confidently.
At 17, Peymand is one year short of being able to vote in these elections. But he had been woken up in the morning to accompany his grandparents to the polling booth. “I wrote their ballot papers for them. My grandmother voted for Rouhani, but my grandfather chose Raisi, even though he voted for Rouhani last time.”
Iran’s voting process begins with the production of the national ID card to the polling official. Then, the ID card is handed over to another official, who gives a ballot paper to the voter. The number of ballot papers given out is accounted for, as it helps calculate the voter turnout.
The voter then goes to a corner, where the wall is usually papered with posters listing the official codes of the candidates. Unlike in India, there is no privacy for the voter, who sits or stands in the open to find any flat surface to fill in their ballot papers. The voter has to carefully write both the name and code of the candidate. If the spelling of the name or the code is wrong, then the vote is invalidated. The last step is, of course, the casting of the vote.
The ‘memento’ of their vote is a ink stain on their index finger, as well as a stamp on the ID booklet’s elections’ page.
While smaller polling booths in south Tehran were quiet, nearly every inch in Lor Zadeh mosque in south Tehran was packed with voters, as well as foreign and Iranian reporters. It was one of the thousands of polling booths from where Iranian state TV was broadcasting live feeds, attracting voters eager to be seen on the small screen.
Ayatollah Khamanei and his successor, Ayatollah Khomenei looked down from large banners high up on the opposite walls of the mosque, as women in chadors and men in western clothes scrambled to find space on two long tables to write their choice. Just like other areas in south Tehran, it was a bastion of Raisi supporters.
The scenario dramatically changed when moving from south to central and north Tehran, where the middle and upper classes thronged to polling stations – many of them standing in queues for six hours.
Inside the white stucco compound of Hazrat-e-Zahra girls’ high school on Motahari Avenue, the lines began inside and had gone past the porch, twisted into the playground and threatened to leave the gates. There was not a single chador visible, rather most of the voters were in fashionable summer outfits.
Ahram Hoshangi, who was the city hall representative at the polling station, said that there were already 50 people standing in line when the doors opened at 8 am. “Even at 7 am, there were two men waiting outside… Last time, the voting went on till midnight. I am sure that this will happen this time too,” Hoshangi noted at noon.
After about one and half hours in line, John J. Jamhri, a dual national of Iran and the US, finally did his civic duty. “Rouhani,” he said unhesitatingly when asked about his choice. Jamhri has personally faced the cost of US-Iran tensions, having found himself unable to return during the short-lived ‘Muslim ban’. “I think that we need a person who can help to have greater engagement with the US and other countries,” he said.
Neda, a 27-year-old pastry chef, was helping to get the ballot papers and put them in the box for an old woman whom she met in the line. “Is there anyone else besides Mr Rouhani?” she asked. “We have only one choice for our future, for our country and that is Mr Rouhani. I want to vote for peace, no war and friendship all over world,” added the Tehran resident.
The liberal bent of the voters in central Tehran was perhaps best embodied by a 54-year-old manager of an industrial company, who identified himself as “Mr Majd”. “I voted for Rouhani as I think that this is the best way to separate religion and politics,” he said. He added that he came to the high school to vote as he preferred not to go to a mosque.
Majd, who had to wait for three hours before casting his vote, felt that the heated campaign may have helped Rouhani. “Actually, it was a good thing. It showed that he can be aggressive, have more passion,” he explained.
In another part of central Tehran, Poupak Hashemi, a 37-year-old painter, was ready to go back home along with her sister and mother. She had finally managed to cast her vote for Rouhani at the school of Shohade Rezare, where celebrity watching usually attracts a large turnout. On the hot Friday afternoon, people in queues were standing in whatever shade they could find – under the short trees, in the shadow of the building and in two tents. The trashcan was overflowing with water bottles and cans of soft drinks as the waiting time became longer and longer.
“I had never voted in the last 16 years. This time, I decided to vote. I didn’t want the hardliners to get power. I am here because of that fear,” said Hashemi.
She admitted that there was a possibility that Raisi could also win. “People here are so sensitive over religious issues. There are families living on welfare… they may vote for Raisi,” said Hashemi, who sported a nose ring and white nail polish.
Her cousin, Mahsa Jenab, 27, was also an impassioned Rouhani supporter. “We don’t want to step back..I have friends and relatives abroad. They tell me how the image of Iran has changed. That outside people are beginning to understand that expats are also friendly, peaceful. We need diplomacy, people who can use attractive language. We don’t need those who act like traditionalists,” she said.
Inside, the main polling official wondered if she herself would be able to vote. “We used to vote in the early morning when there was no rush. But we haven’t been able to catch a breath for a second,” Jarasti told The Wire.
Among central Tehran’s prominent mosques is the Al-Javad mosque, which was constructed 54 years ago as Iran’s first modern religious building. One of the voters at the mosque was Archbishop Sebouth Sarkissian, primate of the Armenian prelacy of Tehran – whose presence at the polling station seemed to fascinate Iranian voters.
“What is this?” asked a woman, pointing to his heavy neck chain, which ended with the icon of Mary and baby Jesus. “It is a barnacle,” he said patiently.
Speaking to The Wire, Sarkissian, the head of the Armenian-Christian community in Iran, said that he had advised his 80,000-strong flock to participate in the elections. “I told them to choose the most suitable, the most powerful.”
Asked about the current state of minorities in Iran, the archbishop pointed out that there were two articles in Iran’s constitution which gave them rights to behave as per their own rules. “Of course, there are difficulties… But, when we get our own rights, we don’t force,” he said.
The archbishop merely smiled when asked about his electoral. “Both are nice,” he said.
While the Christian leader was reticent, Mariam, a student of metallurgy engineering who also cast her ballot at Al-javad mosque, had no such qualms. In fact, she had a very specific number for Rouhani’s chances of winning. “I believe that he has a 65% chance of being re-elected,” said the 30-year-old Tehran resident.
With relatives and friends in Qom, Iran’s holiest city and her birthplace, Mariam said that among her relatives were many Raisi supporters. “We tried to convince each other, negotiated, debated… But ultimately, we maintained our positions,” she said.
In Tehran, the busiest polling station is the Hosseinieh Ershad, the striking blue-domed religious institute where top politicians and celebrities go to cast their votes. It is also the most popular with the media. Naturally, the irresistible combination of famous names and cameras attracts long queues. At Hosseiniye, when The Wire reached at 5:30 pm, the line was nearly a kilometre long.
This was despite the dome already being occupied by nearly 100 people. A number of chairs had been scattered in the middle of the room, which was used by the voters to fill the ballots. “Ninety-nine percent of the people I spoke to in the line are voting for Rouhani,” said 20-year-old accounting student and Rouhani supporter Amir Hussein, who claimed that he waited for six hours in the queue.
Just as he spoke about having voted for Rouhani, a women polling official in a chador came and rebuked gently. “You can’t talk about which candidate you support in here. That is supposed to be secret,” she said.
All around, voters made no effort to hide their choice, talking and filling their ballots openly.
In fact, through the day, Instagram and Telegram channels – the only two social media platforms allowed in Iran – were flooded with photos of filled-in ballot papers, posted by Iranians to demonstrate their support for a candidate. A Telegram channel was also opened to offer a much-needed public service – indicating which polling stations had the shortest waiting time.
The long lines were not just in Tehran. State television channels streaming live feeds from thousands of polling stations across the country showed twisting queues and crowded booths in nearly every part of Iran.
By 3 pm, Iran’s interior ministry reported that around 15 million voters had exercised their mandate. The Raisi campaign had already flagged several poll ‘violations’. However, the interior ministry said that while complaints were received, they were not of a serious nature.
With the number of people standing outside polling stations continued to increase despite a looming deadline, the interior ministry deferred the final time cut-off time five times. After midnight, no vote could be considered legal, since electoral law made it mandatory that voting had to be completed on the same day.
With the lines continuing to stretch, there were multiple extensions till the legal limit of midnight was reached. Late in the night, a woman MP tweeted that she had waited in line for six hours – and urged patience.
At 10:10 pm, 26-year-old Tina, an english student, was standing with her mother in a queue on the unlit pavement outside a high school. Their earlier plan was to skip voting altogether. “I didn’t want to vote,” she admitted. “But my friends talked to me and said that I had to go. I insisted that my mom should come with me and she has been complaining about the circumstances ever since,” she added with a laugh.
Wearing a yellow scarf wrapped over her blonde hair, Tina said that she didn’t want anything to do with the nuclear industry and supported the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. “What matters to us is the economy and more international exchanges… the earlier sanctions had really hurt us, so I totally support us,” she said.
At the top of the queue was Bahram, 27, an information technology professional, who said that everyone he knew would vote for Rouhani. His reason for not voting for Raisi? “He is a liar”.
Finally at midnight, the doors closed at police stations around Iran, leaving thousands out in the cold.
The counting began immediately after midnight, with informal voting numbers dominating the social media grapevine. Many Iranians stayed up all night to get the first official results. The interior ministry had promised a “phased” announcement of the results, which meant that final counts from provinces and cities would be presented every hour and so.
If the informal figures are to be believed, Rouhani is set to for a big landslide win with over 65% of the vote. In 2013, Rouhani was elected for the first time by a 50.8% win in a multi-cornered contest.