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Reformers Hope Iran’s 'Silent Voters' Will Be Heard In June

  • Golnaz Esfandiari

Women stand in front of a poster of Mahmud Ahmadenijad. Reformists fear a low turnout would help him win re-election.

Women stand in front of a poster of Mahmud Ahmadenijad. Reformists fear a low turnout would help him win re-election.

Reformists in Iran are hoping that a high turnout in the June 12 presidential election would help prevent a second term for the hard-line incumbent, Mahmud Ahmadinejad.

That means the so-called “silent voters” who skipped the 2005 presidential ballot might well play a decisive role. In a bid to reach them, reformist campaigners are using everything from phone calls and text messages to e-mails and video clips.

The networking website Facebook has become a major campaign tool as a place where pro-reform Iranians can go to post pictures, articles, and videos.

A particularly popular Facebook item has been a video created by supporters of reformist candidate Mir Hossein Musavi. The video shows a montage of campaign photographs mixed with a song by the band 127, which calls on listeners to think about “the children of the future” and “people such as you and me.”

Candidates hope that through social networking and other resources, they can avoid a similar turnout to 2005, when roughly 30 percent of Iranians -- some 20 million eligible voters -- sat out the election. In big cities like Tehran, as much as 45 percent of voters stayed home.

The reasons were diverse. Some were upset that candidates were subjected to screening by the hard-line Guardians Council. Others were disappointed in reformists who had failed to deliver on promises of change. Still others simply stayed home in opposition to Iran’s Islamic establishment.

Among the silent voters was 25-year-old Javad, a student at Tehran’s Azad University. He told RFE/RL he ignored the vote as a way of demonstrating his dissatisfaction with the way Iranian leaders are running the country.

Four years later, however, Javad feels his boycott didn’t achieve anything. A conversation with his father ultimately convinced him to vote on June 12.

“He said, ‘You don’t have the right to discuss political issues in Iran,’” Javad said. “He said, ‘Those of you who didn’t vote showed that you don’t care about having an impact on the future and fate of your country, your future and the future of your children.’”

Thirty-year-old Reza from Tehran also didn’t vote in 2005. He says he was frustrated by what he describes as a lack of personal freedom, poor opportunities for youth, and the feeling that his vote simply didn’t count.

But he, too, is thinking about voting this month. The main motivation is what he calls the “disastrous” domestic and foreign policies of President Ahmadinejad.

“Most of us have not really chosen the candidate we’d vote for yet, but [the majority of people I know] are not going to vote for Ahmadinejad,” Reza said. “They either won’t vote, or, if they do, it’s going to be an anti-Ahmadinejad vote.”

Target Voters

It is people like Reza that the reformists are working hard to influence ahead of the vote.

One website,, says any Iranian with a telephone can act as an election headquarters. It calls on individual citizens to each call five of their friends and convince them to vote against Ahmadinejad.

One campaign message argues: “Not voting is not a protest, it is retreating.” A recent text message campaign warned its recipients: “If you plan not to vote, just think about the day after, when you find out Ahmadinejad has been re-elected.”

The message is clear: It doesn’t matter which of the two reformist candidates -- former Prime Minister Musavi or former parliament speaker Mehdi Karrubi -- voters choose, as long as they vote against the incumbent.

Issa Saharkhiz, a prominent reformist journalist, told RFE/RL’s Radio Farda that the main goal behind energizing silent voters is preventing a second term for Ahmadinejad, who many Iranians see as a repressive leader who has mismanaged the economy.

“We have to remind people that if they don’t participate, a second-term Ahmadinejad will be much worse,” Sharkhiz said. “He will be even more antidemocratic and against freedom than before, and he will violate human rights more than before.”

Activists say that since Ahmadinejad’s rise to power, the human rights situation has gone from bad to worse. They note growing pressure on women’s rights activists, students, workers, and others. And as Nobel peace prize winner Shirin Ebadi notes in an interview in “Le Monde” on May 28, the number of executions -- including stonings and the execution of minors -- has increased.

Online Campaign

Twenty-one-year-old Ali Kaveh, a Musavi supporter, has created a Facebook group to reach out to silent voters on his own. His message: “Not voting equals letting others decide.”

Kaveh says many people believe that by participating in the election, they could contribute to bringing change to Iran, including improving the economy and moving toward a more moderate, tolerant political climate.

“I see among my relatives and friends -- on Facebook and in general in society -- that those who were silent have realized their mistake,” he said. “Some haven’t changed their minds, though. They say our vote has no impact. Others choose the president.”

Well-known journalist and political analyst Mashaollah Shamsolvaezin says Ahmadinejad’s “wrong strategies” are playing a key role in motivating the silent voters. But other factors are influential as well, he said.

“It seems that the younger generation, women, students, and all of those who had boycotted the election have been inspired by the election in the United States which brought Barack Obama to power, and also by the elections that took place in Iran’s neighborhood -- in Pakistan, Turkey, and Iraq,” Shamsolvaezin said. “They are not willing not to vote, to throw their vote away by abstaining from voting.”

Despite the enthusiasm of Shamsolvaezin and others, it’s expected to be an uphill battle for the reformist candidates. Ahmadinejad is reportedly popular among Iran’s poor and enjoys the support of several key institutions.

Official polls show Ahmadinejad and Musavi neck-and-neck in the lead. Karrubi has also made quick gains among supporters.

The only presidential candidate who seems to have almost no chance in the race is the conservative Mohsen Rezai. But even a small show of support for him could drain critical votes away from Ahmadinejad.

Approximately 46 million Iranians are believed to be eligible to vote on June 12. Shamsolvaezin believes that if more than 30 million of those voters turn out on election day, there’s a chance that a reformist may emerge the winner.

“The conservatives have about 7 million to 10 million traditional voters with the election ‘pollution’ -- by pollution I mean electoral fraud, which could bring conservatives an additional 3 to 5 million,” he said. “So at most, the conservatives would have a maximum of 12 to 13 million votes.”

The remainder, he suggests, would go to the reformists -- meaning Iran’s silent voters could play a decisive role in what Shamsolvaezin says will be a “heated election.”
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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is a senior correspondent with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. She can be reached at


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