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Iran election: Can voters challenge the hard-liners?

Shabnam von Hein
June 27, 2024

Hard-liners in Iran's Islamic clergy-dominated regime seek the presidency, but voters may challenge their dominance. Reformist candidate Masoud Pezeshkian lead in polls, sparking hope among disillusioned voters.

Iran presidential candidates take part in a televised debate at the Iran State television studio in Tehran
Only those who are loyal to the theocratic system are allowed to contest the election in IranImage: Iranian State TV/ZUMA/picture alliance

Iranians have started voting on Friday, June 28, to elect a new president to replace the late Ebrahim Raisi, who died in a helicopter crash last month.

The Islamic Republic's Guardian Council, a panel of Islamic clerics and jurists, approved the names of six men to run for the election.

But on Wednesday, a candidate withdrew from the race. Amirhossein Ghazizadeh Hashemi, 53, dropped his candidacy and urged other candidates to do the same "so that the front of the revolution will be strengthened," the state-run IRNA news agency reported.

Hashemi's decision to drop out is aimed at consolidating the conservative vote so that the only reformist candidate doesn't benefit from the split mandate for hard-liners.

Hashemi served as one of Raisi's vice presidents.

Such withdrawals are common in the final hours of an Iranian presidential election, particularly in the last 24 hours before the vote is held when campaigns enter a mandatory quiet period without rallies.

Hashemi's decision leaves five other candidates still in the race.

The candidates had just under three weeks to campaign and mobilize voters with television debates and election events across the country.

Who are the frontrunners?

Of Iran's 83.5 million people, about 61 million are eligible to vote. But recent surveys have showed that over 30 million — around half of the electorate — do not want to cast their ballots.

Iranian president Raisi killed in helicopter crash

Political repression, economic crisis and failed attempts at reform in recent decades have left them disillusioned with the clergy-dominated regime.

The highest voter turnout of 51.7% is projected by the social research institute "Meta," which is part of Imam Sadeq University. The university was founded after the Islamic Revolution in 1979 and trains high-ranking officials of the state apparatus.

It counts as one of its graduates Saeed Jalili, one of the contestants in the election.

The 58-year-old politician is an ultraconservative former nuclear negotiator known for his uncompromising anti-West stance. He is considered the candidate of the hard-line, ultraconservative camp.

Opinion polls show that while Jalili initially enjoyed a lead over his rivals, the relatively moderate candidate Masoud Pezeshkian is now leading the race.

Pezeshkian is a cardiac surgeon who served as Iran's health minister from 2001 to 2005 under then President Mohammed Khatami, known as a reformist figure.

Pezeshkian has also associated himself with the former administration of the relatively moderate President Hassan Rouhani, who reached Iran's 2015 nuclear deal with world powers.

A recent poll projected that Pezeshkian would receive 24.4% of the votes.

Pezeshkian wanted to run for the presidency in 2021 but the Guardian Council rejected his candidacy at the time.

Some see the panel's decision to allow him to run for president this time around as a tactic to draw in more people to cast their ballots, in a bid to secure legitimacy for the vote.

Attempt to win over nonvoters?

Pezeshkian has sought to win over the disheartened supporters of the reformist camp.

During the election campaign, for instance, he campaigned for votes by criticizing the Muslim nation's rigid headscarf policy. "I promise I will stop this behavior that is happening to our daughters and sisters on the streets," he said at an election event in Tehran on Sunday.

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Pezeshkian vowed to build trust between a possible moderate government and the population.

His supporters see him as the last chance to prevent a victory for the hardliners.

They hope that the fear of a victory by arch-conservative politicians will also mobilize nonvoters.

Jalili and the incumbent speaker of parliament, Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, both hard-liners, are seen as the most promising candidates from the conservative camp.

The latest poll conducted by the ISPA Institute on June 23 put Pezeshkian in the lead with 24.4% of the vote, just ahead of Jalili's 24% and Ghalibaf's 14%.

The institute, based in Tehran, is a non-governmental organization, but is considered close to the government.

To win the election, a candidate needs an absolute majority in the first round, otherwise a run-off will be held on July 5.

The fight for legitimacy

In Iran's theocratic Islamic regime, the president is not the head of state but just the head of government, despite being elected by universal suffrage. The real authority lies with the country's supreme leader, who since 1989 has been Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

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Khamenei also wields influence over the Guardian Council, which decides on the candidates running for president.

This, in practice, means that only those who are loyal to the theocratic system are allowed to contest the election.

In this way, those in power attempt to gain legitimacy through elections, even if the candidate options available to the public remain limited.

Observers say they don't expect the election to bring about any major political changes. "The supreme leader hasn't taken any major risks with the selection of the candidates. The leadership is primarily focusing on continuity," Azadeh Zamirirad, an Iran expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP), told the DPA news agency.

"I am not going to vote," a 27-year-old, who asked not to be named for fear of security reprisals, told DW. "I took part in the previous round of street protests, even though participating in them was life-threatening. I want the regime to disappear. Why should I legitimize them with my ballot?"

Other young voters expressed similar views.

A young woman told the Reuters news agency that she too did not want to vote.

She cited the brutal treatment of protesters by security forces in the wake of massive demonstrations following the death of 22-year-old Jina Mahsa Amini in September 2022 in police custody, after she had been arrested by Iran's so-called morality police for allegedly not properly covering her hair with a headscarf — known as the hijab — which is mandatory for Iranian women.

The brutal clampdown on these protests left deep rifts within Iranian society and further exacerbated the general voter fatigue in the country.

Suspicions over election promises

Many voters have totally lost faith in the promises of the politicians running for office, evidenced by the record low voter turnout of just 48.8% in the last presidential election.

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ISPA estimates that the voter turnout on Friday could be around 50%, slightly above the turnout seen the last time round.

In the past, low voter turnout has mainly benefited the hard-liners, as they could count on their core supporters from the ultraconservative factions to cast their ballots, as they see voting as a duty.

Unlike in 2021, the hard-liners have more than just one candidate from their ranks contesting this election, which could split the conservative vote.

Iranian activists say that speaking or writing about boycotting the election could have severe consequences for people in Iran, pointing out that this could be classified as propaganda against the regime and result in prison sentences.

Narges Mohammadi, a Nobel Peace laureate, offers a case in point.

She had called for a boycott of the Iranian parliamentary elections held in March 2024. This move, her correspondence with Western politicians as well as her expressions of solidarity with an imprisoned journalist resulted in her being sentenced for a year in prison, "for propaganda against the state," her lawyer Mostafa Nili wrote on social media platform X, formerly Twitter, last week.

Despite her imprisonment, she remains unintimidated and released a statement from prison saying that she will not take part in the presidential election.

She questioned authorities in her statement, "How can you put a ballot box in front of the same people when you are simultaneously threatening and oppressing them with weapons and prison sentences?"

This article was originally written in German and translated by Srinivas Mazumdaru.