Low Voter Turnout Marks Iran’s Rare Runoff Presidential Election

Over two decades ago, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei criticized nations with low voter turnout, stating it reflected a lack of trust in the political system, apathy, and a sense of hopelessness among the people. Now, Iran faces its own low voter turnout, with only 39.9% of the electorate casting ballots in the first round of the presidential election.

The runoff election, scheduled for Friday, comes amid widespread discontent stemming from years of economic hardship, crackdowns on dissent, and escalating tensions with the West. Iran’s economy has plummeted to new lows, exacerbated by the ongoing crackdown on protests sparked by the death of Mahsa Amini in 2022. The country’s uranium enrichment program has also reached levels closer than ever to weapons-grade, further fueling tensions.

The runoff pits hard-line former nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili against reformist Masoud Pezeshkian, a heart surgeon whose path to victory hinges on a significant voter turnout. While Pezeshkian’s supporters warn of dire consequences under Jalili’s leadership, many Iranians feel their votes are inconsequential.

“I did not vote and I will not, since nobody apologized because of Mahsa and later miseries that young people face, neither the reformists nor the hard-liners,” said Leila Seyyedi, a 23-year-old graphic design student.

Iranian election law necessitates a candidate to secure over 50% of the vote to avoid a runoff. In the first round, Pezeshkian garnered 10.4 million votes, while Jalili received 9.4 million. Parliament speaker Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf came in third with 3.3 million votes, followed by Shiite cleric Mostafa Pourmohammadi with over 206,000 votes.

Analysts believe that many of Qalibaf’s supporters, who include former members of Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard and national police chief known for their crackdowns and corruption allegations, will likely support Jalili in the runoff. This endorsement has placed Jalili, known as the “Living Martyr” for his injury in the Iran-Iraq war, in a leading position.

However, Jalili’s reputation among Western diplomats during nuclear negotiations, coupled with concerns about his views at home, has fueled anxiety. Former Iranian Information and Communications Technology Minister Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi, a moderate politician, warned of the potential for Iran falling into the hands of the Taliban if Jalili wins.

Despite such warnings, many Iranians remain apathetic towards the election. In Tehran, following the first round of voting, several individuals told The Associated Press that they were indifferent to the process.

“I did not vote, as former presidents failed to realize their promises,” said Ahmad Taheri, a 27-year-old psychology student. “I will not vote this coming Friday either.”

Mohammad Ali Robati, a 43-year-old electronic engineer and father of two, attributed his decision not to vote to the Iranian officials’ apparent disregard for the economic pressures faced by the people.

“After years of economic difficulties, I have no interest in politics,” Robati said, although he hinted at the possibility of voting on Friday.

Since the 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, Iran’s currency has depreciated significantly, with the exchange rate rising from 32,000 rials to $1 to 617,000 rials to $1. This depreciation has eroded the value of bank accounts, retirement funds, and other assets, further fueling economic discontent.

Meanwhile, anger over Amini’s death in September 2022 persists. Her death, which Iranian investigators attributed to “physical violence” perpetrated by the government, triggered months of protests and a brutal security crackdown that resulted in over 500 deaths and the detention of over 22,000 individuals. Despite the ongoing unrest, hard-liners within Iran’s theocracy have intensified the hijab crackdown.

“The voter participation levels and blank ballots represented a repudiation of regime policies, particularly its crackdown on critics and women who refuse to comply with laws requiring full head covering,” the Soufan Center think tank stated in an analysis.

Pezeshkian has pledged to resist the hijab enforcement and internet restrictions on X. However, Tahereh Namazi, a 31-year-old mathematics teacher, abstained from voting due to the lack of clear commitments from both candidates on these issues.

Individuals who did not vote and spoke to the AP stressed their decisions were personal and not part of an organized boycott.

Whether voters will heed Pezeshkian’s call to action on Friday remains uncertain. In recent days, he has repeatedly invoked the story of the “selfless farmer,” a tale taught to Iranian children about a farmer who set his shirt ablaze in 1961 to warn a train of impending danger.

For those abstaining from the election, the train has already crashed.