When approached about whether or not they will be voting for the first time in Friday’s presidential election, they giggle and look at each other for the answer. Two or three of them answer: “We don’t know!”
What year were you born?
All students over the age of 15 are potentially first-time voters in this year’s election. While the voting age was increased to 18 for the election of 2009, for this year’s election the Majlis (parliament) agreed to lower the voting age again.
It is not easy to determine if the students’ lack of interest in politics is due to candidates’ insufficient campaigning or to the prevailing atmosphere of political apathy.
This year, as opposed to previous elections, there is a conspicuous absence of the colorful posters that used to appear on the billboards and walls, or even on the sidewalks, of city streets. Unlike the election of 2009, people have not decorated their cars with candidates’ pictures, slogans or banners, and there is little in the way of debate, praise or criticism of the candidates in taxi rides or cafes.
However, when one listens to them, all of the students express their own reasons for participating (or not) in the elections.
In terms of the arguments in favor of voting, virtually all refer to the importance of the voting stamp in their ID documents, and its perceived impact on admissions to universities, access to public-sector jobs, and conscription, while they also express their worries about the economy, unemployment and inflation.
Hediyeh, a 16-year-old girl, is studying graphic design at a school in northern Tehran. When asked about her participation in the election on June 14, she says that she will not vote, because she knows her vote will not be counted and she prefers not to belittle herself.
Her friend Samaneh nods in agreement, and says: “I don’t think the system will change. Even if it does, it will take three centuries and we won’t be around.” As the girls moved on to complain about the economy, Hediyeh laments it will make no difference who becomes the president, because they are all looking out for their own interests.
“Everything is a game,” she says. “Whoever comes [becomes a president] will have no impact no matter who he is, because he either can’t or won’t do miracles. People in charge of the country, [they] want to destroy Iran and do not wish Iran to become a superpower, because in that case, they will be held accountable and won’t be able to milk the country.”
Samaneh agrees with her. “We are so hurt that no one cares about the election anymore,” she says. Depressed by the topic of politics, she steers the conversation toward the widespread shut down of cafes and recreational clubs, and the police’s intervention in people’s private space.
Although there are no accurate statistics available about economic conditions facing Iranian households, a poverty map from the Rah-e Daneshjoo website says that 44% of Iranian families live below the poverty line last year. The poverty line in Iran is defined as a monthly salary of one million and eight hundred thousand tomans or less (one toman = 10 rials). At the same time, the average salary for a state employee is about 700 thousand tomans per month.
Emad, 15, and Pouria, 16, both students of mathematics from the south of Tehran, agree that they must vote, not only because “it is better to have that stamp of participation in the elections in the birth certificate than not having it,” but also because in the future, they will be able to say that “they voted, at least” and played a role.
Reading between the lines in their conversation, they confess that the election is “interesting.” They have watched all of the televised debates, and their knowledge of the candidates is limited to what they heard in those debates.
Emad believes that, while the choice may be between the bad and the worse, someone must be elected. He says that he likes his country, and in defense of his favorite candidate he says that during the debates “he did not waste two of his three minutes to say prayers, he spoke clearly and also avoided self-censorship.”
Pouria is critical about his friend’s candidate because he is a cleric, saying that if a cleric travels abroad as a president, “It would be shameful, because he is not wearing the Aryan [Persian] attire.”
Pouria, however, insists that his preferred candidate is the best one to resolve the economic problems; also, his debate competitors could not prove or even claim that he did not deliver what he had promised during the period he was in power.
Compared to the integrity and legitimacy of the electoral system, one issue often overlooked is the concern that people who participate in politics, even just by voting, should be properly prepared. As Franklin Roosevelt said, “Education is the only way to adopt democracy.”
In Iran, his views have been echoed by the reformist Mohammad Khatami, president between 1997 and 2005, who has stated he believes that questioning and the use of reason are prerequisite for any political activity.
In 1997, he said: “In the past few centuries, we reacted to Western culture by ceasing to question the West for different reasons. Not questioning leads to lack of reasoning which results in inevitable submission to others…. Submission, lassitude and repression is not our destiny. The people who have built one of the most glorious civilizations in the world are still capable of building another one, as long as they devote themselves to reasoning and questioning.”
This year, there are about 1.3 million potential first-time voters, comprising 4% of the total of those eligible to cast a ballot. At the same time, neither the government nor the various candidates’ campaigns have offered any plans to mobilize, educate or instruct students to participate in the elections.
The minister of education had earlier declared that schools across the country cannot engage in campaigning in the presidential election, and that teachers and principals will be punished if they do so.
Censorship and secrecy on a grand scale in government-controlled media, misinformation and lack of education and are among the factors that restrict the access to genuine information for these young people, potentially stunting their political development. Although these students spend hours surfing the web and learning to circumvent the government’s restrictions on it, they are still deprived of access to accurate information, given that they are not familiar with the English language. Many of them watch satellite TV, but they are unlikely to glean anything useful from the recreational programs and political propaganda broadcast by Farsi television channels.
As they grow older, they will be forced to fall back on the memories of their past election experiences, perhaps never learning that other ways of doing things are possible.