Reformist Masoud Pezeshkian hits the ballot in Iran's presidential election

A reformist candidate critical of Iran's law requiring women to wear headscarves will compete next week against a hardline conservative in a runoff for the country's presidency, state media said on Saturday, following a special vote after the killing of the previous leader. last month in a helicopter crash.

A second round of voting will take place on July 5, pitting reformist Masoud Pezeshkian against Saeed Jalili, an ultra-conservative former nuclear negotiator. The runoff election was partly the result of low voter turnout and a crowded field of four candidates. , three of whom competed for the Conservative vote. Iranian law requires a winner to receive more than 50% of all votes cast.

Participating in another round of elections will put a strain on the energies of an already apathetic electorate, dissatisfied with their leaders at a time of international and national turbulence. Iran's economy is collapsing under heavy Western sanctions, its citizens' freedoms are increasingly limited and its foreign policy is largely shaped by hardline leaders.

The campaign, which initially featured six candidates—five conservatives and one reformist—was notable for its frank discussion of these issues and public willingness to attack the status quo. In speeches, televised debates, and roundtable discussions, candidates criticized government policies and ridiculed rosy official assessments of Iran’s economic prospects as harmful illusions.

Public dissatisfaction with a new president's ability to make changes was reflected in low voter turnout: Only 40 percent of eligible voters voted, according to Iran's state news agency.

In the official results announced on Saturday, Dr. Pezeshkian led with 10.4 million votes (42.4%), followed by Jalili with 9.4 million (38.6%). A third conservative candidate, General Mohammad Baqer Ghalibaf, current speaker of Parliament and former mayor of Tehran, was a distant third with 3.3 million (13.8%).

The low numbers will be a blow to the country's ruling clerics, who have made voter turnout an indicator of the perceived legitimacy of the vote and had hoped to achieve a 50% turnout.

In addition to domestic pressures, Iranian leaders also face a particularly volatile moment in the region: Israel's war in Gaza against Hamas, an Iranian-backed militant group, and escalating skirmishes between Israel and Hezbollah pit two of Iran's proxy forces against Israel, its sworn enemy.

Despite the campaign's critical rhetoric, the candidates were all members of Iran's political establishment, approved by a committee of Islamic clerics and jurists. All but one, Dr. Pezeshkian, were considered conservatives close to the country's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Mr. Jalili, a former nuclear negotiator, is probably the closest candidate to Mr. Khamenei. He leads the far-right Paydari party and represents the country’s most hardline ideological views on domestic and foreign policy. Mr. Jalili has said he believes Iran does not need to negotiate with the United States for economic success.

Dr. Pezeshkian is a heart surgeon and Iran-Iraq War veteran who served in Parliament and as Iran's health minister. After his wife and son died in a car accident, he raised his other children as a single father and never remarried. This and his identity as an Azeri, one of Iran's ethnic minorities, endeared him to many voters.

Dr. Pezeshkian has been backed by former President Mohammad Khatami and has expressed openness to nuclear negotiations with the West, framing the debate as an economic issue. But with the conservative vote no longer split between multiple candidates, his path to the presidency could become more complicated in the neck-and-neck runoff.

Rigging the cards to increase a conservative's chances of victory, Mr. Khamenei signaled his desire to have a second-in-command whose outlook mirrored his own and who would continue the agenda of Ebrahim Raisi, the hardline president who died last month in a helicopter crash near the border with Azerbaijan.

The low turnout reflected widespread apathy among Iranians, who voted in record numbers in this year's parliamentary elections. That frustration has been compounded by the government's violent crackdown on protesters demanding change and its inadequate response to the toll decades of sanctions have taken on the country's economy, reducing Iranians' purchasing power.

The most recent anti-government demonstrations, and subsequent crackdown, were prompted largely by the death of Mahsa Amini in 2022, who died in police custody after being arrested for improperly wearing her mandatory headscarf, or hijab.

In a nod to the unpopularity of the hijab law, all candidates sought to distance themselves from the methods used by the country's moral policy to enforce it, including violence, arrests and fines.

Although the veil requirement has become a campaign issue, the law is unlikely to be repealed, and it is doubtful that a new president will tone down its enforcement. The protests, organized largely by women, have prompted a bloody crackdown ordered by Mr Khamenei, and any new president, analysts said, would have to enforce his policies.

This is largely due to the fact that Iran is a theocracy with parallel systems of government in which elected bodies are overseen by appointed councils made up of Islamic clerics and jurists. Major state policies on nuclear, military and foreign affairs are decided by the country's supreme leader, Mr. Khamenei.

The president's role focuses on domestic politics and economic issues, but it is still an influential position. Previous presidents have played an active role in conducting foreign policy, including a 2015 deal with the United States in which Iran agreed to shelve its nuclear program in exchange for easing sanctions.

The deal was scuttled in 2018 by the Trump administration and Iran returned to enriching uranium. Beyond tensions over Tehran's nuclear program, the United States and Iran have moved ever closer to direct confrontation in recent years as they compete for influence across the Middle East.

In Gaza, the war between U.S. ally Israel and Hamas has drawn the United States, Iran, and its foreign proxies into a closer conflict. Iran sees the use of these groups as a way to extend its power, but many citizens, especially in the cities, see little value in their leaders' strategy and believe that the economy will recover only through sustained diplomacy.

Leily Nikounazar contributed to the reporting.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *