Iranian voters face stark choice in competitive presidential runoff

One promised to confront Iran's enemies, the other vowed to make peace with the world. One intends to double down on social restrictions, the other promises to loosen stifling rules for young people and women. One identifies as an Islamic ideologue, the other as a pragmatic reformist.

The race to become Iran's next president has turned into a fierce contest in which, for the first time in more than a decade, the outcome is hard to predict. The winner will be decided in a runoff on Friday after a general election a week earlier failed to produce a candidate with the required 50 percent of the vote.

The outcome could depend on how many Iranians who skipped voting in the general election decide to participate in the runoff. Voter turnout hit an all-time low of 40 percent last week, with a majority of Iranians boycotting the vote out of anger at the government or alienation and apathy over the failure of previous governments to bring about meaningful change.

Voters must choose between two starkly different perspectives on how to govern the country, which faces a multitude of challenges at home and abroad. The two candidates represent opposite ends of the political spectrum: an ultraconservative hardliner known for his dogmatic views, Saeed Jalili; and a reformist, Dr. Masoud Pezeshkian, who has gained popularity among voters by calling for moderation in both foreign and domestic policy.

Mr Jalili rejects any accommodation with the West, saying Iran should build its economy by expanding ties with other countries, mainly Russia and China. A former nuclear negotiator, he opposed the 2015 nuclear deal for making too many concessions and supports the mandatory hijab law for women and restrictions on the Internet and social media.

Mr. Pezeshkian has vowed to revive the economy by negotiating with the West to lift sanctions. He has promised to abolish the morality police, which enforces the hijab law, as well as lift Internet restrictions and rely on technocrats to run the country.

“This election is about competing currents, not candidates per se,” said Sanam Vakil, Middle East director at Chatham House. “The currents reflect an attempt to preserve revolutionary values, Islamic ideology and the notion of resistance within the Iranian state versus an alternative that is not quite reform, but a more moderate and open social and political climate.”

In Iran’s theocratic system of government, the president lacks the power to overturn major policies that could bring about the kind of change many Iranians would like to see. That power resides in the person of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Two previous landslide presidents promised change but failed to deliver, leading to widespread disillusionment.

However, the president is not entirely powerless, analysts say. The president is responsible for setting the domestic agenda, choosing cabinet members, and even exerting some influence on foreign policy.

On Wednesday, Mr. Khamenei said he was disappointed by the low turnout in the first round of voting and acknowledged some disenchantment with the Islamist government. But he rejected attempts to equate the low turnout with rejection of the system and urged people to vote.

“We have said this repeatedly,” he said. “People's participation is a support for the system of the Islamic Republic, it is a source of honor, it is a source of pride.”

Mr Khamenei cast his ballot early Friday morning at the religious centre attached to his compound, state television showed. He cast his vote into a ballot box on a solitary table in a large hallway and waved.

“At this point, people should naturally be more decisive and finish the job,” Mr. Khamenei said. He gave no indication of which candidate he supported.

Polling stations opened at 8 a.m. Friday and are scheduled to close at 10 p.m., although an extension is likely. Many Iranians vote in the evening because of the summer heat.

Turnout was expected to be slightly higher because of the strong polarization, but also because many people fear the potential for an extremely hardline administration. The Interior Ministry said representatives of both candidates will be present at polling stations during the voting and counting of ballots.

Mr. Jalili is part of an extremist but influential political party known as Paydari, with followers who see him as more of an ideological leader than a politician. Dr. Pezeshkian, a cardiologist and former health minister and member of parliament, was until recently little known outside political and health circles.

The lineups of their advisers and campaign staff reflect the stark differences in their policies and have given voters a sense of what each administration might look like.

Mr. Jalili’s team includes hardline conservatives who promise his presidency would be a continuation of the “resistance policies” of former President Ebrahim Raisi, whose death in a helicopter crash in May prompted emergency elections. Military commanders and senior clerics have backed him, praising his zeal on religious and revolutionary issues.

Dr. Pezeshkian has assembled a team of experienced technocrats, diplomats and ministers, including former foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who are touring the country to support him, especially warning of catastrophe if Mr. Jalili is elected.

“The election on Friday, July 5, is about the future,” Mr. Zarif said Tuesday, speaking at a virtual town hall on the social media app Club House, where thousands of Iranians have gathered every evening to discuss the election. “We actually have a referendum. These two choices are as different as night and day,”

Reformists are counting on measurable defections from the conservative camp, where Mr. Jalili has long been a divisive figure. Many conservatives see him as too extreme, analysts say, and fear his presidency would deepen the rift between the government and the public and put Iran on a collision course with the West.

Polls conducted by government agencies appeared to indicate that a significant number of voters who supported the more moderate conservative candidate, Mohammad Baqer Ghalibaf, the speaker of parliament, would side with Dr Pezeshkian in an attempt to block Mr Jalili's chances of winning the presidency.

Many Iranians are still determined to boycott the vote. Mahsa, a 34-year-old accountant from Isfahan, said she would not vote and did not believe in the logic that she would have to choose between “bad and worse.”

But others said in interviews and on social media that they had changed their minds, largely because they were terrified of Mr Jalili's rise.

Babak, a 37-year-old businessman from Tehran who asked that his last name not be made public for fear of reprisals, said he and his family would end the boycott and vote for Dr. Pezeshkian. “We kept wondering what to do and finally decided that we had to try to stop Jalili, otherwise we would suffer more,” he said.

A prominent political activist who did not vote in the first round, Keyvan Samimi, said in a video message posted on social media from Tehran that he had decided to support Dr Pezeshkian. “We are casting a protest vote to save Iran,” he said. The frenzy against Mr Jalili has intensified as the vote approaches. Senior politicians have compared him to the Taliban and accused him of running a “shadow government.”

Mr Jalili’s supporters have hit back, accusing the reformists of insults and fear-mongering. They have hit back, calling Dr Pezeshkian a puppet of the moderate former president, Hassan Rouhani. They have said the doctor has no real plan and has overreached on issues that are outside his authority as president, particularly his promise to abolish the much-hated morality police and normalize ties with the United States.

Reza Salehi, 42, a conservative public relations worker who campaigned for Mr. Jalili, said in an interview from Tehran that “Mr. Jalili is absolutely not dogmatic.” He added that the candidate was better prepared to govern and that the so-called shadow government was more like a think tank than the sinister conspiracy his rivals claimed.

Analysts say the outcome of the runoff remains difficult to predict. Dr. Pezeshkian may have been allowed to run as a token reform candidate to boost turnout, some say, but he has at least turned himself into a wild card.

“The two candidates are neck and neck and it is not clear whose name will emerge from the ballot box,” Nasser Imani, a Tehran-based political analyst, said in a telephone interview. “What is certain is that in these elections, saying 'No' is the tendency. No to the elections or no to this candidate, no to that candidate.”

Leily Nikounazar contributed a report from Belgium.

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