June 29, 2024

Reacting to Iran’s First-Round Election

The Friday, June 28 surprise election to replace former President Ebrahim Raisi resulted in tepid turnout and a run-off between the two leading vote getters, the reformist Member of Parliament Masoud Pezeshkian and the hardline former nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili. The run-off will be held on Friday, July 5. Below are some key takeaways:

Turnout was a mere 40% of eligible voters, the lowest in the Islamic Republic’s history for a second-straight Presidential election and down from 48.8% in the 2021 election, though very similar to the reported turnout in the parliamentary elections that saw a record number of spoiled ballots. 

This demonstrates that a majority of the Iranian public remains disaffected from participation in the Islamic Republic’s restricted elections, which are neither free nor fair. The Iranian people have suffered manifold outrages from their government and circumstances, including the brutal crackdown on popular protests in 2022 and earlier and the failure of past moderate and reformist figures to deliver lasting change. As a result, a majority appear to have concluded for now that they would rather stay home than risk legitimizing a government they do not believe in. The inclusion of a reformist on the ticket in Masoud Pezeshkian may have boosted turnout in some quarters, but did little overall to arrest the slide in turnout in the first round.

Still, this first-round election represents a new pattern. Low turnout has typically corresponded with a conservative victory and a reformist and moderate loss, whereas Pezeshkian secured a lead of a million votes over the hardliner he will face in the run-off, Saeed Jalili. Typically, reformists have only triumphed when turnout reaches near record highs with a vast majority of public participation. Pezeshkian appears to have done well enough to turn out a core base of support that gives him a plausible path to victory, but he will likely need to secure support from Iranians who opted to stay home yesterday in order to triumph. 

Thus far, Pezeshkian has adopted a modest and non-confrontational approach to Supreme Leader Khamenei and the Islamic Republic’s existing power centers, emphasizing cooperation and unity. This is both a reflection of the candidate and apparently a strategy to ensure that a potential administration’s future success is not hobbled by ideological fights that it is unlikely to win. While former Foreign Minister Javad Zarif has engaged in more fiery rhetoric against hardliners in support of Pezeshkian’s campaign – and earned a veiled rebuke from the Supreme Leader – Pezeshkian is walking a tight rope: more open opposition to the Islamic Republic authorities could appeal to the “gray vote” that is staying home, but doing so could undermine his ability to deliver if he wins the election.

There is a significant difference between the candidates in the run-off, and about as wide a difference as the Islamic Republic’s restricted elections would allow. Still, this doesn’t change that many Iranians remain disaffected. Whether they turn out, or not, on Friday after more politicking is likely to determine the final outcome.

  • Masoud Pezeshkian is a doctor, former Health Minister under the reformist government of Mohammad Khatami and the current representative of Tabriz in parliament. Pezeshkian questioned the mandatory hijab laws and its harsh enforcement after the killing of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in 2022 that sparked nationwide protests. An ethnic Azeri, he has actively campaigned in and represents minority areas inside Iran. Pezeskhian has aligned with former foreign minister Javad Zarif in the campaign and has signaled his interest to restore the 2015 Iran nuclear deal (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action/JCPOA).
  • Saeed Jalili is the former head of the Supreme National Security Council and Chief Nuclear Negotiator under the Mahmoud Ahmadinejad administration. Jalili, viewed as the most conservative of the three candidates, is a long-time critic of the JCPOA who supports full implementation of hijab laws and vows not to negotiate with the West or agree to restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program. His campaign has openly advocated for restricting internet access and tightening strict hijab laws.
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