Turnout for Iran’s presidential vote this weekend got a boost halfway around the world, as it turns out—in Canada, of all places.
The nation is home to the third-largest Iranian émigré community, but none of them were allowed to vote in their own election back home—Iran does not do absentee ballots, and the Canadian government did not allow polling stations. (Even the United States, no friend of the Iranian government, allowed the Islamic Republic to arrange the voting for Iranians in America.)
This might not have mattered so much if turnout was low, as analysts had predicted—instead, more than 18 million Iranians streamed to the polls on Saturday to elect Hassan Rowhani, who is seen as a reform candidate (relatively speaking).
Here’s where it gets interesting: Some of those voters were actually acting on behalf of Iranians living in Canada, thanks to a campaign organized on Facebook.
These Iranians had intended to boycott the vote until they were contacted by organizers halfway across the world. Don’t want to vote? Iranians in Canada asked Iranians in Iran. OK, so vote for us. In this way, more than a thousand activists took advantage of the kind of political apathy analysts were (mistakenly) convinced had seized the nation.
The Facebook campaign was the work of Toronto-based Iranian graphic designer Hajar Moradi and a Calgary-based Iranian student, Sadra Semnani.
Asked how they could know if their votes were actually submitted in Iran, organizers described the initiative as “based on trust, whoever volunteered to vote for us we trusted that they would.”
“Some of them took a photo of their ballot before casting it, and sent it to us,” they told Millennial Letters.
Despite the limited power of Iran’s presidency, voting remains important to many Iranians. The last time Iran held presidential elections, in 2009, mass protests shook the country when the opposition disputed the results. Iranians raised the cry: “Where is my vote?”
Millions rallied behind Mir Hussein Moussavi, a reformist candidate now under house arrest. The protest movement, meanwhile, soon saw a swift, brutal government crackdown. Many were tortured and imprisoned by the state while others fled, taking refuge in Canada and elsewhere. In the meantime, criticism of the Iranian authorities strengthened at home and abroad.
This is why, four years later, many Iranians—wherever they live—feel so strongly about casting their ballots.
Those living in Canada felt particularly strung, having lost their electoral rights in, ironically enough, their adopted democracy.
Maryam Nabavi, who has both Iranian and Canadian citizenship, even took an overnight bus from Toronto to Washington so she could vote in the election.
“I took the bus at 8 p.m., got there around noon, took 15 minutes to cast my vote, then got back on the bus and returned,” Nabavi said. “It was a long way and very tiring. But I’m happy now and think it was well worth it.”
“It is important that people take the political process seriously and participate in it,” Kamangir told Millennial Letters. “We also wanted to send the message that we are unhappy that we cannot be a part of the election here in Canada.”
“We literally walked in the city and collected votes.” Seven hundred people participated, he said.
After the real election, the Canadian government called the results “effectively meaningless” while decrying the rights situation there—a response that angered some Iranians.
Iranian journalist Negar Mortazavi was one such critic. After all, these initiatives speak to a strong sense of civic life within the Iranian community. These people could have just sat at home in Tehran or Toronto and decided that it was too hard to figure out a way to vote. Iranians living in Iran who had decided to boycott could have refused to represent the voting interests of fellow Iranians. But “instead of being haters,” as Mortazavi put it, they came up with solutions that speak to a spirit of change in Iran that may prove more powerful than any elected leader.
Negar Mortazavi contributed to this report.