MASHAD, Iran -- Iranians vote Friday for a new president to succeed the controversial Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, but many voters question the value of their ballot, convinced that no elected government can solve Irans economic woes and end its diplomatic isolation.
In a packed sports hall in Mashad, Irans second biggest city, candidate Hasan Rowhani on Wednesday night urged the thousands indoors and an overflow of 40,000 outside to end the extremism of Ahmadinejads eight years by voting and convincing 10 others to vote with them.
The current government has turned every opportunity into a threat, said Rowhani, a moderate-conservative clergyman endorsed by Iranian reformists as their best chance this year. I promise all of you that the era of extremism will end.
If his supporters turn out, Rowhani, 64, is likely to be a top finisher in the six-man race, with Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf, the popular mayor of Tehran, his main competition. If neither receives 50 percent, a runoff will be held June 21.
A sampling of merchants and shoppers in Mashads bazaar suggests turning out Rowhani voters might be the big challenge.
According to many residents of this city of 2.4 million, turnout is closely linked to the perception that the presidency is a weak post, subservient to the countrys real supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khameini. That realization might keep potential Rowhani voters home.
Yassir, 31, a spice vendor in Mashads main bazaar, is one of those skeptics. Right now, he has no plans to vote, though he allowed for a possible last-minute change of heart to support Rowhani.
The president has only so much power. He can only make small changes to policies, said Yassir, who like others interviewed would not give his last name, for fear of retribution. The supreme leader sets the general policies.
Four years ago, Yassir was one of the many merchants in Mashad who wore a green wristband, signaling his support for reformist leader Mir Hossein Mousavi, who, his supporters claim, was deprived of victory because of fraud in the election that gave Ahmadinejad his second term.
We dont have a democracy. We have a hidden dictatorship, said Sooroosh, 25, another merchant. Four years ago, they didnt honor my vote. No one in my family will vote this time.
Ehsan, 29, another merchant, said he would vote, but for Qalibaf, partly because of his resume, which includes a term as commander of the air force of the Republican Guard, a militia that reports to the supreme leader.
Based on his military experience, we trust him more. He looks more determined, Ehsan said. He said he hoped that Qalibaf would improve Irans foreign relations, ease the Western sanctions and reduce unemployment.
People dont live in Iran, said Mohammad, 40, a taxi driver behind the wheel of a beaten up old Iranian-made car. They just survive. Surprisingly, he said he planned to vote.
In Iran, the reformists main message is that they will support the Iranian constitutions guarantees of human rights and womens rights. Internationally, they promise a change of tone, though not necessarily a change in policy something that conversations indicate Iranians long for after the Ahmadinejad years, when the outgoing president at one point indicated he did not accept Israels right to exist and the country was at loggerheads with the United Nations and much of the world over its enrichment of uranium that Washington fears could be used in a future nuclear weapon.