TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — On the eve of Iran's presidential elections, a former Iranian president blocked from a comeback bid urged voters Thursday not to boycott the vote in protest over crackdowns on dissent or in anger over his exclusion from the race.
The appeal by former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani came in response to persistent calls by many among reform-minded voters to stay away from Friday's election, despite the apparent rising profile of moderate candidate Hasan Rowhani, a former nuclear negotiator.
The boycott drive seeks to mount a symbolic rebuke to Iran's ruling system after years of arrests and pressures against opposition forces since the disputed re-election in 2009 of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Iran's constitution bars Ahmadinejad from running for a third consecutive term, though he could run in the future.
But a significant snub of the voting would most likely hurt Rowhani, who has been backed by his close ally Rafsanjani and other reformist leaders. His other rivals include hardliners or conservatives seen as favored by the ruling theocracy.
Rafsanjani's stature rose sharply with liberals after he criticized hard-line tactics used in the unprecedented postelection clashes and demonstrations four years ago. Opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi, who challenged Ahmadinejad in the 2009 election, and another reform-leaning candidate, Mahdi Karroubi, have been under house arrest for more than two years.
Reports Thursday by several pro-reform newspapers, including the Etemad daily, quoted Rafsanjani as saying that people "should not boycott" the vote.
"I urge them to vote," he was quoted as saying.
On Wednesday, thousands of supporters welcomed Rowhani in the northeastern city of Mashhad chanting: "Long live reforms."
They also urged for a strong turnout under the phrase of "one for 100" — meaning every reformist should try to encourage 100 people to the polls.
Iranians traditionally have shown high interest in voting. The average reported turnout in the past 10 presidential election is more than 67 percent.
Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has repeatedly called for a high turnout as a reply to Western governments that have strongly questioned the openness of Iran's elections — including the process of vetting candidates, which dropped Rafsanjani and other perceived moderates.
But Khamenei went further in his appeal on Wednesday, when he equated voting to a patriotic act for voters, even if they don't want to support the Islamic establishment.
"It is possible that some do not want to support the Islamic Republic while seeking to support their own country. They should vote, too," said Khamenei, who has final say on all state matters. He added that a high turnout would "frustrate the enemy."
"When the enemy faces frustration, it will lose its efficiency," he said.