Iran votes in presidential election despite low turnout

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Iran’s presidential election on Friday saw a remarkably low turnout, with initial estimates suggesting only about 25 percent of eligible voters participated. That was a significant drop from the 70 percent turnout seen in previous elections and fell short of the 50 percent target set by ruling clerics, who view voter turnout as a measure of their legitimacy.

Years of economic hardship and harsh social restrictions have left many Iranians disillusioned with politicians’ broken promises. For some, abstaining from voting is a way of expressing their rejection of the government. Reports from Tehran indicated empty polling stations, with some voters defying dress codes, such as Mahdieh, 41, who voted without a hijab. By contrast, polling stations in central and southern Tehran saw longer queues as voting stretched into the evening.

The election comes at a critical time, with the new president facing significant challenges, including domestic unrest, economic strife and regional tensions that have brought Iran to the brink of conflict twice this year. Final results may not be available until tomorrow, but analysts predict no candidate will get the 50 percent needed to avoid a runoff.

Pre-election polls by Iranian state television showed a tight race between the main candidates. Conservative candidates Mohammad Baqer Ghalibaf and Saeed Jalili each had around 16% support, while reformist candidate Dr. Masoud Pezeshkian was leading with 23%. If these numbers hold, a runoff between Pezeshkian and one of the conservatives is likely on July 5.

Ghalibaf, a former commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and current speaker of parliament, and Jalili, an extremist, have refused to stand down despite a public feud. Of the two, Ghalibaf is seen as more pragmatic. Pezeshkian, leading in polls but below the 50% threshold, emphasized his campaign’s focus on addressing the needs of disadvantaged areas.

Another candidate, Mostafa Pourmohammadi, a cleric with a background in intelligence, is expected to receive less than 1% of the vote. Pourmohammadi had warned that low voter turnout would be a significant problem for the Islamic Republic.

Voting began at 8 a.m. local time and continued late into the night to encourage higher turnout. The Iranian leadership, including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, had framed the election as a challenge against Iran’s adversaries and a validation of the Islamic Republic’s rule. Khamenei urged citizens to vote as a civic duty, promising that it would bring “dignity and credit” to the country.

However, many Iranians appear to be continuing the election boycott that began with the last major vote, doubting that significant change will come through the ballot box. The rigorous selection of candidates by a committee of clerics and jurists, coupled with the government’s efforts to silence the opposition, contributed to this skepticism.

In the days leading up to the elections, young Iranians expressed their discontent. Four psychology students at Tehran University, while shopping at Tajrish Bazaar, expressed their frustration with the country’s situation, but had no intention of voting. Sohgand, 19, mirrored this sentiment, saying, “We can’t do anything about the situation; we have no hope but ourselves.”

Despite widespread apathy, some polling stations saw active participation. At Tehran’s Hosseinieh Ershad religious institute, Neema Saberi, 30, expressed support for reformist candidate Pezeshkian, citing his anti-corruption stance and commitment to improving international relations.

The televised debates highlighted the economy as a major concern for voters and candidates, with American sanctions, corruption and mismanagement as key issues. Analysts say addressing Iran’s economic problems requires addressing foreign policy challenges, including the nuclear standoff with the United States and regional military entanglements.

Vali Nasr, a professor at Johns Hopkins University, suggested that while radical change is unlikely, the election could lead to significant shifts in policy if voices advocating a different direction gain influence.

In provinces with large populations of ethnic Azeri Turks and Kurds, turnout is expected to be higher for Pezeshkian, himself an Azerbaijani Turk. His campaign speeches in Turkish and Kurdish resonated with these communities, generating regional enthusiasm.

At a rally in Tabriz, Pezeshkian was welcomed as a hero, demonstrating regional support for his candidacy, which activists say is rare for ethnic and religious minorities in Iran.

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