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Iranian Presidential Elections Head to Runoff With Reformist Narrowly Leading

The snap election had a turnout of around 40 percent — the lowest in Iran since the 1979 revolution.

An Iranian woman casts her ballot at a polling station during the presidential election in Tehran, Iran, on June 28, 2024.

Reformist legislator Masoud Pezeshkian and conservative former nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili will face off in a second round of voting after neither candidate secured a majority of the votes in Iran’s election Friday.

Surprise elections in Iran were called after conservative President Ebrahim Raisi died in a helicopter crash on May 19, opening what one expert called a “void in the Islamic Republic’s leadership.”

“None of the candidates could garner the absolute majority of the votes, therefore, the first and second contenders who got the most votes will be referred to the Guardian Council,” Interior Ministry spokesperson Mohsen Eslami announced on Saturday.

Pezeshkian and Jalili will now advance to the runoff election on July 5.

After Friday’s voting, Pezeshkian took a slight lead with 10.45 million votes over Jalili’s 9.47 million, according to an initial tally reported by The Guardian. Both of them edged out conservative parliament speaker Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf with 3.38 million votes and former Justice Minister Mostafa Pourmohammadi with 206,000.

A total of 24,735,185 people voted, representing a turnout of around 40%. That is the lowest turnout in an Iranian election since the 1979 revolution, according to Middle East Eye.

“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 National Iranian American Council (NIAC) wrote in a statement on Saturday. “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,” NIAC continued, “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.”

Reform leader Abbas Akhoundi said: “About 60% of voters did not participate in the elections. Their message was clear. They object to the institutionalized discrimination in the existing governance and do not accept that they are second-class citizens and that a minority impose their will on the majority of Iranian society as first-class citizens.”

The outcome on July 5 could depend on whether or not turnout increases.

NIAC observed that Pezeshkian’s lead was surprising, given that low-turnout elections usually favor more conservative candidates.

“Typically, reformists have only triumphed when turnout reaches near record highs with a vast majority of public participation,” the group wrote. “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.”

Because power in Iran is ultimately held by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the winner of the presidential election is unlikely to substantially shift policies such as Iran’s nuclear program or its support for militant groups in the Middle East, according to Reuters.

However, NIAC said the difference between the two candidates was “about as wide a difference as the Islamic Republic’s restricted elections would allow.”

Pezeshkian, a former health minister who represents Tabriz in Parliament, advocates for economic and social reform. He expressed regret over the death of Mahsa Amini after she was arrested for allegedly wearing her hijab incorrectly — an event that sparked nationwide protests in 2022 — and also criticized the Raisi government for lack of transparency during the protests.

“We will respect the hijab law, but there should never be any intrusive or inhumane behavior toward women,” Pezeshkian said after voting on Friday.

In foreign policy, he supports direct diplomacy with the U.S. and has expressed interest in renegotiating the 2015 Iran nuclear deal or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

Jalili, who represents Khamenei on the Supreme National Security Council, supports even stricter hijab laws, advocates for internet restrictions, and opposes the JCPOA or any negotiations with Western countries.

Because Pezeshkian was the only reformist in the first round of elections, he may struggle in a second round unless turnout increases, as supporters of the other conservative candidates would vote for Jalili, according to The Guardian.

However, a reformist newspaper editor told the Middle East Eye that many people who had sat out the first round of elections may vote in the second round to prevent a win by Jalili. The editor also predicted that many people who voted for Ghalibaf in the first round would back Pezeshkian in the second.

“At least 40% of his supporters, who are moderate and pragmatic conservatives, would vote for Pezeshkian as they fear Jalili’s domestic policies and dead-end foreign policy,” the editor said.

Ahead of the election, Trita Parsi of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft predicted that voters would ultimately decide based on a desire to improve “their increasingly dire economic situation in the medium term.”

“They are looking for the candidate who will most likely be able to reduce the price of meat,” Parsi wrote.

He did predict the winner could make a difference in Iran-U.S. relations, but only up to a point.

“Expectations for an opening between the U.S. and Iran should be kept low, even if Pezeshkian wins,” Parsi concluded. “The problems between the U.S. and Iran are deeper today than they were in 2013, the trust gap is wider, reversing Iran’s nuclear advances is going to be more difficult and politically more costly. On top of all that, Iran has more options in today’s increasingly multipolar world.”

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