Masoud Pezeshkian  Saeed Jalili
© The CradleThe hastily arranged Iranian presidential election to succeed Ebrahim Raisi saw a record low turnout, forcing a 5 July runoff between reformist Masoud Pezeshkian and conservative Saeed Jalili and highlighting deep voter dissatisfaction.
Forty days after the passing of Iran's President Ebrahim Raisi in a helicopter crash, the Islamic Republic held snap elections on Friday, 28 June, to vote for a new head of the administrative branch. With no single candidate receiving a mandatory 51 percent of votes cast, however, the two leading candidates will now advance to a runoff poll on 5 July.

Conservative candidate Saeed Jalili and reformist-leaning Masoud Pezeshkian lead political factions that are not merely rivals but fierce adversaries, epitomizing the deep political divide within the country.

Voter apathy reaches historic high

According to Iran's Interior Ministry, 61,452,321 Iranians inside and outside the country were eligible to vote. However, only 24,535,185 cast their ballots, resulting in a turnout of approximately 40 percent. This figure is slightly lower than the 40.6 percent turnout in the March 2024 parliamentary vote and marks the lowest participation rate in the Islamic Republic's history.

According to figures released by the Interior Ministry, Pezeshkian received 10,415,991 votes, accounting for 42 percent of the ballots, while Jalili garnered 9,473,298 votes or 38.6 percent. The current Majlis Speaker Mohammad-Bagher Ghalibaf, another frontrunner, obtained 3,383,340 votes, or 13 percent. Former Intelligence Ministry director Mustafa Pour-Mohammadi earned 206,397 votes, fewer than the number of invalid ballots.

The modest turnout has raised many questions about voter apathy, with most observers and analysts blaming the government for failing to satisfy the electorate's needs and expectations.

Historically, the highest participation rate in Iran was 98.2 percent during the 1979 referendum for establishing the Islamic Republic. The second highest was the controversial 2009 presidential election, with an 84.8 percent turnout.

That election was marred by unsubstantiated claims of fraud by the losing side, the reformists, who supported Mir-Hussein Mousawi of the Green Movement against the incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. These claims and subsequent protests led to eight months of unrest in Iran.

Polling opinions or crafting opinions?

During the 17-day campaign, Persian-language social media, particularly X, was flooded with opinion polls lacking clear sources. The main polling entities in Iran include ISPA, the polling arm of the Iranian Student News Agency (ISNA), the Islamic Republic Broadcasting Organization (IRIB), the Ministry of Intelligence, the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, and the Ministry of Interior.

These institutions conducted surveys regularly during the 17-day campaigning period, and the results were shared with candidates and their teams. Occasionally, these results were leaked to the media without citing their sources.

A new phenomenon in this election cycle was the proliferation of surveys attributed to universities or unknown organizations, leading to conflicting results. Additionally, some self-proclaimed analysts began interpreting Google Trends.

This mix of unreliable surveys and the public's inability to distinguish between fake and real polls created an atmosphere of distrust, especially after the University of Tehran denied having a polling center.

Implications of 40 percent voter turnout

As mentioned above, the unprecedented 40 percent turnout is an important development that should alarm Iranian authorities.

Given that even at the highest participation rate in recent memory (84.8 percent in 2009), an average participation rate of 67.7 percent, and that between 15 and 33 percent of the population has never voted, it is possible to conclude that up to 30 percent of the population abstained from voting last Friday. This development, it must be noted, has social, cultural, religious, and economic roots.

Iran's difficulties are due to economic mismanagement exacerbated by years of western-imposed sanctions, financial corruption, and a pervasive sense of misery and incompetence within the state, which is constantly amplified through social media and anti-Iran Persian-language media outlets based in foreign countries and backed by hostile states.

Necessary but unpopular economic reforms implemented by Raisi's administration, including increasing taxes on assets and bank accounts, closing loopholes for tax evasion, and legally pursuing traders and hedge funds profiteering from market turbulences, may have further discouraged voter turnout.

The fact that none of the candidates, except Jalili, presented a clear plan for the future government, coupled with the short two-week campaign period, uninspiring TV debates, and a general disregard for controversial issues such as social freedoms - even by the "reformist" candidate - likely contributed to voter skepticism and low turnout.

Two candidates, two visions

Next Friday, 5 July, Iranians will once again have to choose between two mindsets and worldviews, each representing a significant segment of Iranian society with considerable differences. Pezeshkian represents the faction that seeks to mend ties with the west, revive the 2015 nuclear deal, and even establish relations with the US.

This mindset advocates a free market, minimizing the role of government, and criticizes Iran's "look east" foreign policy and its growing influence in West Asia and North Africa. Pezeshkian has the support of two former presidents Muhammad Khatami and Hassan Rouhani, the vocal former foreign minister Javad Zarif, and numerous members of Rouhani's administration. He also has the backing of certain ayatollahs in Qom, various pro-reform media outlets, activists, and financial groups critical of current economic policies.

Jalili, on the other hand, has the backing of the traditionally conservative group Jebheh-e-ye Paydari or "Steadfastness Front," which secured many seats in the March parliamentary elections. Unlike Ghalibaf, he lacks the support of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), religious eulogists (Maddah), and media pundits who previously supported Ghalibaf and now favor Pezeshkian.

Despite this, Jalili has received an endorsement from Ghalibaf, who urged his supporters to vote for Jalili in a statement:
As I am concerned about the political faction supportive of Mr Pezeshkian, I ask all revolutionary forces and my supporters to join hands and prevent the group responsible for the majority of today's economic and political woes from reaching power.
With Ghalibaf, Mohsen Rezaei, and other conservative groups promising to back Jalili and the reformist camp and former Rouhani luminaries placing their weight behind Pezeshkian, it is now up to Iranian citizens to make that final decision for the nation.