MASHAD, Iran — Iranians vote today 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 Iran's economic woes and end its diplomatic isolation.
In a packed sports hall in Mashad, Iran's second-biggest city, candidate Hasan Rowhani urged the thousands indoors and an overflow of 40,000 outside Wednesday night to end the extremism of Ahmadinejad's 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 Mashad's 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 country's real supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. That realization might keep potential Rowhani voters home.
Yassir, 31, a spice vendor in Mashad's 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.
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 election fraud that gave Ahmadinejad his second term.
"We don't have a democracy. We have a hidden dictatorship," said Sooroosh, 25, another merchant. "Four years ago, they didn't honor my vote. No one in my family will vote this time."