Iranians vote in run-off presidential race amid widespread apathy

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Iranians voted on Friday in a run-off presidential election that will test the clerical rulers’ popularity amid voter apathy at a time of regional tensions and a standoff with the West over Tehran’s nuclear program.

State TV said polling stations opened their doors to voters at 8 a.m. local time (0430 GMT). Polling was to have ended at 6 p.m. (1430 GMT), but was extended first until 8 p.m. and then to 10 p.m. (1830 GMT) in response to “renewed requests” from polling stations, an interior ministry spokesman told state TV.

Voting in past elections was often extended until as late as midnight.

It showed queues inside polling stations in several cities later in the day. The final result are expected on Saturday, although initial figures may come out sooner.

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The run-off follows a June 28 ballot with historically low turnout, when over 60 percent of Iranian voters abstained from the snap election for a successor to Ebrahim Raisi, following his death in a helicopter crash. The low participation is seen by critics as a vote of no confidence in the Islamic Republic.

The vote is a tight race between low-key lawmaker Masoud Pezeshkian, the sole moderate in the original field of four candidates, and hardline former nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili, a staunch advocate of deepening ties with Russia and China.

While the election is expected to have little impact on the Islamic Republic’s policies, the president will be closely involved in selecting the successor to Ali Khamenei, Iran’s 85-year-old supreme leader who calls all the shots on top matters of state.

“I have heard that people’s zeal and interest is higher than in the first round. May God make it this way as this will be gratifying news,” Khamenei told state TV after casting his vote.

Khamenei acknowledged on Wednesday “a lower than expected turnout” last week, but said “it is wrong to assume those who abstained in the first round are opposed to Islamic rule.”

Voter turnout has plunged over the past four years, which critics say underlines that support for clerical rule has eroded at a time of growing public discontent over economic hardship and curbs on political and social freedoms.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei votes during the presidential election in Tehran, Iran, July 5, 2024. (Via Reuters)
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei votes during the presidential election in Tehran, Iran, July 5, 2024. (Via Reuters)

Only 48 percent of voters participated in the 2021 election that brought Raisi to power, and turnout was 41 percent in a parliamentary election in March.

However, the interior ministry spokesman told state TV that early reports indicated “higher participation compared with the same hour in the first round of the election.”

The election coincides with escalating Middle East tensions due to the war between Israel and Iranian allies Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon, as well as increased Western pressure on Iran over its fast-advancing uranium enrichment program.

“Voting gives power ... even if there are criticisms, people should vote as each vote is like a missile launch (against enemies),” Amirali Hajizadeh, the commander of the aerospace unit of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), told state media.

The next president is not expected to produce any major policy shift on the nuclear program or change in support for militia groups across the Middle East, but he runs the government day-to-day and can influence the tone of Iran’s foreign and domestic policy.

Faithful rivals

Election rivals Jalili and Pezeshkian are establishment men loyal to Iran’s theocracy. But analysts said a win by the anti-Western Jalili would signal a potentially an even more authoritarian domestic policy and antagonistic foreign policy.

A triumph by Pezeshkian might promote a pragmatic foreign policy, ease tensions over now-stalled negotiations with major powers to revive a 2015 nuclear deal, and improve prospects for social liberalization and political pluralism.

Iranian presidential candidate Saeed Jalili waves at the crowd during the run-off presidential election, in Tehran, Iran, July 5, 2024. (Via Reuters)
Iranian presidential candidate Saeed Jalili waves at the crowd during the run-off presidential election, in Tehran, Iran, July 5, 2024. (Via Reuters)

However, many voters are skeptical about Pezeshkian’s ability to fulfil his campaign promises as the former health minister has publicly stated that he had no intention of confronting Iran’s power elite of clerics and security hawks.

“I did not vote last week but today I voted for Pezeshkian. I know Pezeshkian will be a lame duck president but still he is better than a hardliner,” said Afarin, 37, owner of a beauty salon in the central city of Isfahan.

Many Iranians have painful memories of the handling of nationwide unrest sparked by the death in custody of young Iranian Kurdish woman Mahsa Amini in 2022, which was quelled by a violent state crackdown involving mass detentions and even executions.

Iranian reformist candidate Masoud Pezeshkian (C-R) and Iran’s former foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (C-L) gesture after voting in Tehran on July 5, 2024. (AFP)
Iranian reformist candidate Masoud Pezeshkian (C-R) and Iran’s former foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (C-L) gesture after voting in Tehran on July 5, 2024. (AFP)

“I will not vote. This is a big NO to the Islamic Republic because of Mahsa (Amini). I want a free country, I want a free life,” said university student Sepideh, 19, in Tehran.

The hashtag #ElectionCircus has been widely posted on social media platform X since last week, with some activists at home and abroad calling for an election boycott, arguing that a high turnout would legitimize the Islamic Republic.

Both candidates have vowed to revive the flagging economy, which has been beset by mismanagement, state corruption and sanctions reimposed since 2018 after the United States under then-President Donald Trump ditched the nuclear deal.

“I will vote for Jalili. He believes in Islamic values. He has promised to end our economic hardships,” retired employee Mahmoud Hamidzadegan, 64, said in the northern city of Sari.

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