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In Iran's low-turnout election, did freedom find a voice?

Iran youth shun voting, embrace social media
Iran youth shun voting, embrace social media 02:27

Tehran — Ibrahim Raisi, Iran's conservative judiciary chief, won last Friday's election in a landslide. But Iran's official media don't mention a couple of embarrassing facts. For instance, 3 million voters spoiled their ballots, and more than half of Iran's eligible voters didn't even show up at the polls. 

Turnout was the lowest in the Islamic Republic's history. It's not clear how much that fact will weaken Raisi's legitimacy, but it is a sensitive subject. 

At his first press conference on Monday, Raisi implied that it was the coronavirus pandemic that had kept people away. 

"Whether people voted for me or another candidate," he said, "or for some reason like COVID didn't go to a polling station — I still serve the Iranian nation." 

COVID-19 may indeed have been a factor. Iran is struggling with a serious outbreak, and a lack of vaccine doses. 

But apathy and disillusionment played a bigger role.   

Talks to revive Iran nuclear deal after elect... 08:58

Millions of Iranians have watched their standard of living collapse over the past four years under the pressure of U.S. economic sanctions. They simply don't believe Iran's Islamic leadership has the will, or the skill, to make their lives better. 

"I have voted for 42 years, and I haven't seen any improvements," one man told us. "Why would I vote again this time?" 

Others are angrier, but they dared not voice their criticism publicly in a country where dissidence is routinely punished by arrest and jail time. 

Instead, they turned to the one space where Iranians can say what they really think — the internet.  

An online campaign urged people not to vote at all in protest against what it called "this murderous regime" — a reference to demonstrators killed by security forces in the wake of the turbulent 2009 election. Raisi himself was sanctioned by the U.S. over his role in that crackdown, and in August, he'll become the first Iranian president seated with American sanctions already hanging over him.

Iranians from across the country — and expats around the world — posted pictures of their palms, on which they'd written: "I love my country so I'm not going to vote." 

Iranians from across the country – and expats around the world – posted pictures of their palms ahead of the June 18, 2021 election, on which they'd written: "I love my country so I'm not going to vote." 

In one video posted online, the mother of a 30-year-old man who died during previous unrest speaks directly to the camera: 

"Curses on the government.  May God punish them, and the one who shot my son in the heart," she says.  

In Raisi's news conference, he described the election as "epic," but he is fully, and perhaps uncomfortably aware that the political disenchantment and frustration simmering not far under the surface in his country are epic, too. 

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