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What low voter turnout might reveal about Iran’s presidential election

1 week ago 44

After just 40 percent of eligible voters cast ballots last week, Iranians voted Friday in a runoff presidential election that has exposed deep frustrations at a time when the country is faced with significant challenges domestically and abroad.

Voters were choosing between two starkly different candidates: Ultraconservative Saeed Jalili is facing off against reformist Masoud Pezeshkian. Pezeshkian won the most votes in the first round last week but fell short of securing a majority. Jalili is hoping to consolidate the conservative vote in this round but may struggle to attract moderate conservatives.

After Iran's presidential election on June 28 failed to produce a winner, the two leading candidates faced off in a runoff election on July 5. (Video: AP)

Analysts say the result is difficult to predict, but the persistent low turnout is believed to hurt Iran’s reformist candidates more than the country’s conservatives. Several Iranians abstaining from the election told The Washington Post that they would have voted for reformist Pezeshkian over ultraconservative Jalili.

“Elections in Iran to a great extent have lost their meaning,” said Mehdi Mahmoudian, 46, an Iranian political activist who didn’t vote in the snap election and said he would not cast a ballot in the runoff. Mahmoudian said elections in Iran have begun to resemble “a religious ritual” rather than a serious political exercise.

In a rare acknowledgment, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, addressed low voter turnout ahead of the runoff but said it wasn’t a sign of dissatisfaction with his government.

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“It is wrong to assume those who abstained in the first round are opposed to the Islamic rule,” he said in a statement Wednesday.

As voting got underway Friday, state-backed media broadcast video of voters lining up outside polling booths across the country. Similar reports were broadcast during the election last week before the official figures revealed that turnout was low.

Political engagement in Iran has steadily plummeted in recent years. Before last week’s runoff, 48 percent of eligible voters cast ballots in the 2021 presidential election. Voter turnout was over 70 percent as recently as 2017, according to returns information released by state media.

For some Iranians, refusing to vote is an act of opposition in a country that quells political protests with violent force. Others say they are politically apathetic after elected officials repeatedly failed to prevent worsening social and economic conditions.

“People have realized that participation is empty and election results are invalid, so of course they no longer want to participate,” Mahmoudian said. Many of those sitting out the vote are doing so with the hope that this act of protest will eventually force change, but Mahmoudian admitted he is unsure if the approach will work.

At rallies and presidential debates, Pezeshkian addressed voter apathy. “I will do everything possible to look at those who were not seen by the powerful and whose voices are not heard,” he told supporters this week.

Rozhin, a 30-year-old content creator from Tehran who supports Pezeshkian, said she believes that the different visions the two candidates represent could motivate higher turnout.

“Many people who didn’t vote in the first round are voting in the second,” she said, adding that Jalili’s presence on the ballot is concerning to many Iranians who feel threatened by his brand of conservatism.

Amirhossein, a laborer from Tehran who supports Jalili, said he believes that the drop in political engagement in Iran is due to false information spread by the media.

“The limited turnout is mostly because of propaganda from the foreign media that tries to scare people about the conditions of life in Iran,” he said, comparing international news coverage of Iran today to politically motivated Western reporting on the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Rozhin and Amirhossein both spoke on the condition that only their first names be used for fear of reprisals.

The snap election in Iran, triggered by the death of President Ebrahim Raisi in a helicopter crash in May, is not expected to usher in dramatic change in the country, in part because Iran’s president cannot set policy. But the two candidates offer different views on issues that are important to voters. In a presidential debate, Jalili deflected when asked about harsh enforcement of Iran’s mandatory dress code for women. Pezeshkian said Iran needs to change “the view that women are second-rate citizens.”

The two candidates also differ on how they believe Iran should interact with the outside world. Pezeshkian advocates greater engagement with the West to ease Iran’s economic crisis, while Jalili proposes strengthening ties with allies Russia and China to resist sanctions.

Despite other limitations, Iran’s president can set the tone for policy and exercise some economic control.

Iran’s economy is sputtering, crippled by sanctions and plagued by high inflation. Regional tensions also remain high as groups backed by Iran in Gaza, Lebanon and Yemen are locked in conflict with Israel and its allies.

“Today, there are two views of the country in this election. What should the future look like today?” Jalili asked a crowd of his supporters at a campaign event this week. The view presented by his opponent, he said, was one of “despair and ‘we can’t.’”

“But another way is to choose a path to the future that is the path of martyrs,” he said. “Weakness cannot be resolved by weakly begging some foreign country. We must resolve this position with strength.”

correction

A previous version of this article misstated Rozhin's age. The article has been corrected.

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