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Iran prepares to elect president in a run-off, voter turnout is a worry | Elections News


Tehran, Iran – A giant mural in downtown Tehran is usually a good indication of the mood in Iran.

Looking over the bustling Valiasr Square, it displayed ballistic missiles and might when Iran attacked Israel in April.

In the days leading up to the run-off presidential election on Friday, it indicated alarm over the depths of voter apathy.

“Which president? It’ll certainly make a difference,” it read, showing reformist-backed centrist Masoud Pezeshkian and hardliner Saeed Jalili.

The mural came up after 60 percent of at least 61 million eligible Iranians chose not to vote in the first round of the snap election on June 28, marking a record low turnout since the country’s 1979 revolution.

In a change of rhetoric, Minister of Interior Ahmad Vahidi marked “valuable” public participation after the vote, rather than claiming an “epic” showing – as officials had even when late President Ebrahim Raisi was elected in 2021 with a then-record low turnout of 48 percent.

Raisi was killed along with seven others, including Minister of Foreign Affairs Hossein Amirabdollahian, when their helicopter crashed in a mountainous area on May 19.

Most Iranians are disillusioned in the aftermath of deadly months-long protests in 2022 and 2023, and as people are squeezed dealing with one of the highest inflation rates in the world.

The gloves come off

Many are questioning whether their vote will have any real impact.

Shabnam, a 24-year-old PhD medical student, said she did not vote in the first round and does not plan to do so in the run-off because it is ineffective.

“I think the president in this country doesn’t have much autonomy, and the promises made during campaigns are empty, they lack substance and are just not genuine,” she told Al Jazeera.

“Moreover, the political narratives feel repetitive and unimpactful.”

Seeing the apathy and considering the fact that conditions are unlikely to considerably improve in the short term, the candidates and their supporters have been mostly manoeuvring on attacking each other, rather than presenting actionable plans.

The Pezeshkian camp has maintained that the former heart surgeon and longtime lawmaker would be able to make things marginally better, whereas a Jalili presidency would set Iran back decades.

Jalili has stressed that he must become president so his opponent would not usher in former reformist-minded officials whom he blames for Iran’s current dilemmas.

The focus has been so much on attacking the rival camp that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said this week candidates must refrain as it would only hurt the country.

Iranians in Iraq vote in presidential election
Iranians vote in the first round at the Iranian embassy in Baghdad, Iraq June 28, 2024 [Thaier Al-Sudani/Reuters]

But two more televised debates this week, the first one-on-one talks held since the 2005 presidential election, were no different.

The moderator, who was accused of favouring Jalili since the candidate’s brother is the deputy chief of state television, would remain silent for long periods as candidates descended into shouting matches numerous times and disregarded their allotted times.

Where do the candidates stand?

Pezeshkian says he would try to lift United States sanctions by engaging with the West and renegotiating the country’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers that Washington unilaterally abandoned in 2018.

“Tell me at what price you’re selling oil now,” he asked Jalili multiple times, pointing out that Iran is selling its crude to China at huge discounts in exchange for goods rather than foreign currency. “Why is China not investing in Iran?”

Jalili, for his part, was adamant that Tehran must “make the enemy regret imposing sanctions” through resilience and expanding its economy, and reiterated his opposition to contentious financial transparency rules required by the intergovernmental Financial Action Task Force (FATF).

Of the five conservative and hardline candidates allowed to run in the election, three have backed Jalili. Conservative Mostafa Pourmohammadi, a Muslim leader from the security apparatus, has tacitly backed Pezeshkian.

“Will you accept responsibility for the horrible resolutions during your time in office?” he said in a speech this week, referring to Jalili, during whose time as chief nuclear negotiator Iran was hit with United Nations Security Council sanctions.

Former moderate President Hassan Rouhani, whose administration negotiated the nuclear deal, said in a video online that people must not vote for the “sultan of resolutions” who played a role in inflicting up to $1 trillion in damage to the Iranian economy.

To reassure people about the economy, Pezeshkian selected Ali Tayebnia, the economy minister who brought inflation down to single-digit territory during the Rouhani presidency.

Pezeshkian has already promised tax rebates to most Iranians but dismissed Jalili’s promise of bringing inflation down to single digits as unfeasible under current circumstances.

“I will withdraw from the election if Mr Jalili commits that he can be executed if his government fails to realise an 8 percent economic growth rate,” he said on national television.

‘Change is undeniable’

According to Sanam Vakil, director of the Middle East and North Africa programme at Chatham House, the June 28 election results should be a “wake-up call” for the Iranian political establishment.

“It is unlikely though that the system or the highest echelons of leadership will be more responsive. To do so would require meaningful reform, openness to the West and liberalisation,” she told Al Jazeera, adding that the system has resisted such compromises.

Electoral staff count ballots in a polling station after voting ended, in a snap presidential election to choose a successor to Ebrahim Raisi following his death in a helicopter crash, in Tehran, Iran June 29
Electoral staff count ballots in a polling station after voting ended, in Tehran on June 29, 2024 [Majid Asgaripour/WANA (West Asia News Agency) via Reuters]

 

A potentially higher turnout in the run-off is believed to mostly benefit Pezeshkian, but Vakil said if the more moderate candidate wins with limited votes his mandate will be affected.

“Without a strong backing, Pezeshkian will follow in the footsteps of other reform-minded presidents whose presidencies further disappointed the Iranian population,” she said.

Yasaman, a 29-year-old financial analyst based in Tehran, said she is voting on July 5 even though many of her friends are not.

“I believe the right to vote which we take for granted today was not achieved easily, and [we should] appreciate what the previous generations have fought for,” she told Al Jazeera.

“I have to admit that the differences between the candidates’ campaigns are not as significant as they should be, but if you look at inflation and unemployment rates, you can see a meaningful variation in different governments. So, it is undeniable that there will be a change.

“The scale may not be dramatic, but I accept that.”

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