Understanding Iran’s 2024 Electoral Landscape (Part 1)

The recent Iranian presidential election unfolded under extraordinary circumstances, marked by the sudden death of President Ebrahim Raisi and other officials in a tragic helicopter crash. This unexpected event necessitated a swift and spontaneous election, highlighting the typically short and constrained campaign periods in Iran. The rapid organization and execution of the electoral process underscored the agility and adaptability of the Iranian political system in times of crisis.

The Guardian Council (12 members appointed by the Supreme Leader, responsible for vetting candidates) played a pivotal role in shaping the electoral landscape by disqualifying several prominent figures, including former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the former head of parliament, Ali Larijani. The authorities allowed five conservative and one reformist candidates, perceived as state supporters, to run. This cautious approach underscored the regime’s strategic considerations in maintaining control over the electoral process. 

As this piece will show, the recent Iranian presidential election is an interplay of reform, resistance, and realignment. It highlighted the ongoing dynamics of Iranian politics, where efforts to mobilize and engage the populace continue to face significant obstacles. The state’s cautious yet strategic approach, the influence of reformist figures, and the persistent ethnic and social divides all played crucial roles in shaping the outcome. As Iran navigates its political future, many factors will remain central to understanding the evolving relationship between the state and its citizens.

Election and Participation Matters 

For the Islamic Republic as an establishment, elections are critical. The first Supreme Leader, Ruhollah Khomeini, considered elections a “divine responsibility.” Public participation is so vital that in April 2021, during Ramadan, influential Shiite cleric Alireza Panahian stated, “Political activities will bring humans closer to God than any other activities.” This sentiment was inspired by the current Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, who expressed voting as a “religious responsibility.”

Political scientists characterize the Iranian post-revolutionary political system as “competitive” or “electoral” authoritarianism. While it is well-known that a significant portion of the country’s essential policies goes through the Supreme Leader, there are limited political currents that compete and sometimes cooperate. In recent elections, two main competitive currents have remained prominent. On one hand, traditional conservatives (Principalists) emphasize strong government, revolutionary values, and economic and foreign policy “resistance.” A more extreme version of this group, known as Hard-liners or “Hezbollahi,” also exists. On the other hand, reformists and modernist conservatives advocate for stabilizing international relations, supporting the free market, and promoting social liberties to some extent.

The Shadow of the Past

In 1997, Mohammad Khatami’s presidential run represented a potential liberalization within Iran. Even in conservative cities like Mashhad, young people celebrated, hoping for the first Reformist president and a new political stream. Despite disappointments at the end of Khatami’s eight-year term, his supporters did not give up. The 2009 presidential election led to mass demonstrations and clashes over the results, yet voter hopes persisted.

In 2013, Hassan Rouhani’s campaign slogan, “Government of Prudence and Hope,” promised diplomatic solutions to international relations, economic improvements, and socio-political liberation. His victory brought celebrations, as people hoped for a better economy and more freedom, especially after the nuclear struggles under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Rouhani’s first term saw the signing of the JCPOA on July 14, 2015, a significant achievement. However, by the 2017 election, Iranians seemed to vote for Rouhani mainly to block Hard-liner candidates, reflecting a choice between “a rock and a hard place.” Internal elite competition, ongoing demonstrations, and undelivered promises weakened Rouhani’s public standing. The U.S. maximum pressure campaign and the unilateral withdrawal from the JCPOA in 2018 further compounded these issues, leading to widespread strikes and protests. The largest occurred in November 2019 after a 50% fuel price hike, contributing to socio-political instability and eroding public trust.

When Ebrahim Raisi registered for the 2021 election, his victory seemed assured due to his potential as a future Supreme Leader and the lack of strong reformist or moderate candidates. With around 49% voter turnout and approximately 13% invalid votes, Raisi secured 18 million votes (72%). The Reformists’ absence from political influence and their failure to address growing public discontent led many to declare the end of reformism in Iran.

Confident but Insecure

In the past two years, several events have highlighted the current state of Iran. Continuous demonstrations across the country, culminating in the Mahsa Amini movement with the slogan “Woman, Life, Freedom,” have significantly widened the gap between the state and society. The growing civil disobedience, particularly in the form of election boycotts, reflects this disconnect. Low voter turnout in the 2021 presidential election, which led to Ebrahim Raisi’s presidency, and the most recent parliamentary election, resulting in a parliament dominated by conservatives and hardliners, underscore this trend.

Despite controlling domestic dissent through repression, the state has attempted to project power through military means. Calculated attacks on nuclear facilities in Pakistan and Israel have aimed to demonstrate control and dominance in the region, countering claims of state weakness. Nevertheless, widespread discontent and the distance between the population and the state remain clear, contributing to the state’s underlying insecurity.

In this context, the state saw an opportunity to regain confidence by aiming for high voter turnout in the election. By allowing a reformist-backed candidate to run, the Guardian Council, controlled by the Supreme Leader, sought to boost participation and show a degree of flexibility, implicitly acknowledging that “the voice of the people is heard.”

Unveiling the Current Mood

The period around the election is typically one of intense discussion and debate in Iran, resembling a short festival where even taboo topics are openly discussed, and politicians really show their drama-queen side. For months, discussions about Iranian politics have dominated social media platforms like Clubhouse, although the public’s overall frustration and discontent with the ruling elites have tempered enthusiasm for participation.

While some reformist-minded Iranians became motivated to re-engage with the political process, hoping to recover some legitimacy, the election’s first-round participation rate of around 40% clearly marked the existing gap and sent a negative message to the authorities. The reformists, despite strong efforts and support from figures like former President Khatami, garnered only 10.4 million votes—a significant drop compared to previous elections. The conservative candidates, Mohammadbaqer Qalibaf and Saeed Jalili, also saw a combined vote total that fell short by 5 million compared to Raisi’s 18 million in 2021.

Ethnic dynamics played a notable role in the election. Pezeshkian, an Azeri from the eastern part of the country and familiar with Kurdish regions, addressed issues of discrimination and injustice faced by ethnic groups and minorities, particularly Iranian Sunnis. His campaign efforts in Iranian Kurdistan and Sistan-Baluchistan, where local elites began to mobilize support, resulted in some votes from these regions. However, participation rates in provinces with significant ethnic populations dropped dramatically. For instance, Sistan-Baluchistan saw a 30% participation rate, down 33% from the previous election, and Kurdistan had one of the lowest participation at 23%, a 14% drop.

These trends indicate that many ethnic groups are not swayed by superficial promises or ethnic appeals, highlighting the limits of local intellectuals and political elites in mobilizing support. Additionally, the internal diversity within ethnic groups, often underestimated, was evident as prominent leaders like Molana Abdolhamid, the Sunni Friday Imam of Zahedan, refrained from supporting any candidate, while other educated elites and former parliament members did offer their support.

Final Thoughts 

Iranian media often portrays elections as “epic” events to inspire a sense of heroism and enthusiasm among the population. Indeed, the scale and scope of the Iranian presidential election are grand, encompassing the struggles of various political figures vying for a powerful position that commands significant influence over the country. Currently, both reformists and hardliners are attempting to attribute the nation’s challenges to the other side. Reformists criticize Jalili for obstructing foreign policy consolidation and supporting domestic oppression, calling the potential government of Jalili the “government of Taliban.” Conversely, hardliners blame Pezeshkian’s supporters, including Hasan Rouhani and Javad Zarif, for the country’s issues, labeling Pezeshkian’s potential government as “Rouhani’s third government.”

In this tense political landscape, fear and angst are the dominant emotions. Both sides are leveraging the fear of a bleak future to motivate voter turnout, especially among those who have previously abstained. The prevailing message is that failing to vote could worsen the country’s conditions.

Interestingly, while reformists in the 1990s focused on themes of “future” and “hope,” their current strategy has shifted towards a more conservative stance: “We vote so the situation won’t get worse.” Although the first round of the election, marked by low turnout, indicated that this fear-based approach might not be entirely effective, both sides are likely to intensify their dramatization of this fear in the second round. This will involve highlighting the darker aspects of their opponents’ policies, debating critical domestic socio-political and economic issues, and discussing important foreign policy matters, such as the future of the nuclear deal.

By emphasizing the stark consequences of the election, both reformists and hardliners aim to galvanize voters and address the pressing challenges facing Iran. This approach reflects the complex interplay of fear, hope, and pragmatism in the nation’s ongoing political narrative.