Understanding Iran’s 2024 Electoral Landscape (Part 2)

On Friday, July 5, Masoud Pezeshkian was announced as the winner of the snap presidential election in Iran. The reformist-backed Pezeshkian competed against hardliner Saeed Jalili in a runoff. Although his election is not expected to bring major fundamental changes, it begins with high expectations and potential consequences in the coming years.

The first round of the election saw a 40% turnout, the lowest in the history of the Islamic Republic, highlighting a clear gap between society and the state and its institutions. In the second round, with approximately 10% more participation, Iranians showed their rejection of far-right currents, which had dominated the country over the past three years. Pezeshkian’s votes increased from around 10 million to 16 million in the second round. Notably, the total votes he received were less than the approximately 18 million votes Ebrahim Raisi garnered in the 2021 election. This indicates limited support for both reformists and hardliners.

It is important to note that presidential elections are typically held alongside City Council elections, which have historically higher turnouts due to broader participation and family dynamics. This usually motivates more people to vote for the presidential election as well. This separation might partly explain the low participation rate. Nevertheless, about 50% of Iranians, both domestically and abroad, sent a clear message of either indifference or complete disagreement with the system.

Going forward, we can observe the parallel existence of three groups: reformists, hardliners, and non-participants. The system’s hope is to integrate non-participants into the reformist camp, a challenging task for Pezeshkian. Additionally, his government must address critical issues related to the economy, social matters, and foreign policy, all of which were discussed during his campaign. In this divided environment, every mistake by Pezeshkian will be scrutinized and leveraged against him by both hardliners and non-participants.

Pezeshkian’s Popularity

While many initially doubted his presidential prospects, speculating that he was chosen to lose, Masoud Pezeshkian managed to significantly boost his popularity in a short time. His existing popularity stemmed from his tenure as a parliament member representing the Tabriz, Osku, and Azarshahr electoral districts in Eastern Azerbaijan, as well as his role as the governor of Piranshahr and Naghadeh counties in West Azerbaijan province, a Kurdish region. Pezeshkian, being Azeri on his father’s side and Kurdish on his mother’s, is fluent in both languages. This cultural and linguistic background was a key highlight of his campaign. During his visit to Sanandaj, people were excited to hear a candidate speaking Kurdish for the first time. Pezeshkian’s emphasis on supporting the rights of ethnic and confessional groups garnered support from educated elites in Iranian Kurdistan and Baluchistan, reflected in higher votes from these regions. However, it should be noted that this dynamic is not new, as provinces with significant ethnic populations typically vote for reformists due to their focus on socio-political rights, particularly for ethnic groups.

Pezeshkian was also perceived as a family-oriented man during his campaign. From the outset, when he registered his candidacy, he was accompanied by his young daughter, who played a significant role in his campaign. Amid the intense debate on the oppression of girls and women during the Woman, Life, Freedom movement, Pezeshkian sought to address these issues. The active participation of his young daughter and their close relationship were prominently featured in his campaign. Additionally, Pezeshkian’s personal story as a single father who lost his wife and youngest son in a car crash and never remarried further portrayed him as a trustworthy and compassionate individual.

Supporting Elements  

Beyond the family dynamics that play a role in all elections, Pezeshkian received comprehensive support from reformists, including their popular leader Mohammad Khatami and his allies. He also garnered support from moderate President Hassan Rouhani and his ministers. Notably, Javad Zarif and Azari Jahromi, two prominent ministers from Rouhani’s administration, actively campaigned for Pezeshkian by participating in various political meetings and traveling across the country, effectively driving his campaign.

Their involvement highlighted two main objectives: first, improving foreign policy and relations with the West, aiming to lift sanctions, a message strongly conveyed by Zarif; second, combating internet filtering and related restrictions, an issue emphasized by Azari Jahromi, the former Minister of Information and Communications Technology. Through these figures, Pezeshkian demonstrated his commitment to reducing restrictions in both foreign policy and cyberspace, suggesting they could play important roles in his administration.

Pezeshkian, a cardiac surgeon, emphasized scientific methods and expert consultations to address problems. He frequently referenced religious texts, particularly sermons, letters, and sayings attributed to Ali, the first Shiite Imam, focusing on equality, justice, and supporting the people. Despite these references, his campaign largely avoided religious slogans, instead emphasizing nationalist aspects. The main slogan, “bara-ye Iran” (For Iran), resonated with the well-known song “Baraye” by Shervin Hajipour, which became an anthem of the Woman, Life, Freedom movement following Mahsa Amini’s death. This slogan appealed to younger populations who had distanced themselves from the state over the past two years.

State’s Achievement 

Predicting the actual outcome of Pezeshkian’s presidency is difficult at this moment. It is well-known that the president of Iran has limited power, and while Pezeshkian can select and suggest key members of his cabinet, many decisions depend on the Supreme Leader and the cooperation of the current parliament. Presently, Pezeshkian’s victory is seen as an opportunity both inside and outside the country. How this opportunity will develop depends on various factors, such as the upcoming U.S. elections and regional elements like the war in Gaza.

Regardless of potential policy implications, one conclusion can be drawn: the state (referred to as Nezam in Iran) has managed to maintain some ties with those who had distanced themselves from the state in recent years. Until a few months ago, the relationship between the state and the nation was severely strained, with some Iranians even questioning whether to support the national football team. Supporting politicians or participating in state-organized events, like elections, was not considered by many, as evidenced by the low participation rate in recent parliamentary elections. However, during this presidential election and the lead-up to it, a portion of the Iranian population that had withdrawn from the political process returned to the campaign, mobilizing more people to participate.

As discussed earlier, the gap between the state and society remains significant and could widen if Pezeshkian fails. However, this intense campaign period has revealed a form of indirect agreement between the authorities and the population. The state allows certain critical voices to become active within the system by promising some socio-political relaxation in exchange for votes, thereby boosting the state’s legitimacy.

At present, both the state and Pezeshkian’s supporters appear cautiously optimistic. The 50% non-participation rate remains a significant concern. Pezeshkian’s voters may feel a sense of relief that an extreme hardliner is not president, but they are not naive enough to place full hope in Pezeshkian to fix everything, as was the case in the 2013 and 1997 presidential elections, which saw around 80% participation.

Picture source: Mohammad Ali Marizad, Tasnim News