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After low voter turnout, Iran will hold runoff elections between reformer Pezeshkian and hardliner Jalili

After low voter turnout, Iran will hold runoff elections between reformer Pezeshkian and hardliner Jalili
After low voter turnout, Iran will hold runoff elections between reformer Pezeshkian and hardliner Jalili

By JON GAMBRELL and AMIR VAHDAT, Associated Press

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Iran will hold a presidential runoff election pitting a little-known reformer against a hard-liner among the former nuclear negotiators after results released Saturday showed the lowest voter turnout in the Islamic Republic’s history.

More than 60 percent of voters did not cast a ballot in the race in which reformer Masoud Pezeshkian defeated Saeed Jalili, who ran alongside two other hardliners.

With Jalili now facing the heart surgeon alone, Pezeshkian’s campaign must lure voters to the July 5 runoff election that they would not otherwise have participated in. Public anger is growing after years of economic hardship and mass protests in Iran under its Shiite theocracy.

“Let’s think of it as a protest in itself: a widespread decision to reject the offer – both the candidates and the system,” said Sanam Vakil, director of Chatham House’s Middle East and North Africa program. “That tells us a lot about public opinion and apathy, frustration. It kind of brings it all together.”

Of the 24.5 million votes cast in Friday’s election, Pezeshkian received 10.4 million and Jalili 9.4 million, election spokesman Mohsen Eslami said. Parliament Speaker Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf received 3.3 million, while Shiite cleric Mostafa Pourmohammadi received over 206,000 votes.

According to Iranian law, a winner must receive more than 50 percent of all votes cast. If this is not the case, a runoff election between the two leading candidates will take place a week later. There has only been one other runoff election in Iran’s history: in 2005, when hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad defeated former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.

As has been the case since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, women and those calling for radical change are excluded from the election. And the election itself will not be subject to any control by internationally recognized observers.

There were signs that the population was disappointed with the election. More than a million votes were declared invalid, which is usually a sign that people feel obliged to vote but do not want to vote for any of the candidates.

According to the results, overall voter turnout was 39.9 percent. In the 2021 presidential election, in which Raisi was elected, turnout was 48.8 percent, while in the parliamentary election in March, turnout was 40.6 percent.

There were calls for a boycott, including from the imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize winner Narges Mohammadi. Mir Hossein Mousavi, one of the leaders of the 2009 Green Movement protests, who remains under house arrest, also refused to vote with his wife, his daughter said.

There has also been criticism that Pezeshkian is just another government-backed candidate. In a documentary about the reformist candidate that aired on state television, one woman said her generation was moving “towards the same level” of hostility toward the government that Pezeshkian’s generation had in the 1979 revolution.

Jalili, whom CIA Director Bill Burns once described as “astonishingly opaque” in negotiations, would likely have won handily had the three hardliners not split in Friday’s vote. Known as a “living martyr” after losing a leg in the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, Jalili is known among Western diplomats for his tough talk and hard-line stance.

Qalibaf, a former general in the paramilitary Revolutionary Guard and head of Iran’s police, was believed to have a broader power base, although he has been plagued by corruption allegations and has been involved in previous violent crackdowns.

He immediately supported Jalili in conceding the election result and criticized Pezeshkian for his alliance with President Hassan Rouhani and his former foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. The two signed the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and world powers, which later collapsed after then-President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew from the agreement.

“The road is not over yet, and despite the fact that I personally respect Dr. Pezeshkian, … I ask all revolutionary forces and my supporters to help stop the wave that is causing an important part of our economic and political problems today,” Qalibaf said in a statement.

The question now is whether Pezeshkian can win voters for his campaign. On election day, he made comments about the West after casting his vote, apparently to increase voter turnout for his campaign – even though he was hit by a veiled warning from Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

“Pezeshkian was a disappointing candidate overall,” geopolitical consulting firm Eurasia Group said in an analysis ahead of Friday’s vote. “If he were to make it to a runoff, his position would be weakened as the conservative voting bloc would unite behind a single candidate.”

Raisi, 63, died in the May 19 helicopter crash that also killed the country’s foreign minister and others. He was seen as a protégé of Khamenei and a possible successor, but many knew him for his involvement in Iran’s mass executions in 1988 and his participation in the bloody crackdown on dissidents following protests over the death of Mahsa Amini, a young woman arrested by police for allegedly not properly wearing the mandatory hijab.

Only one attack was reported in connection with Friday’s election. Gunmen opened fire on a van carrying ballot boxes in the restive southeastern province of Sistan and Baluchestan, killing two police officers and wounding others, the state news agency IRNA reported. The province regularly sees violence between security forces and the militant group Jaish al-Adl and drug traffickers.

The runoff election comes as the war between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip is causing increasing tensions in the Middle East. In April, Iran launched its first direct attack on Israel. Militia groups that Tehran arms in the region – such as Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Yemen’s Houthi rebels – have become involved in the fighting and have escalated their attacks.

Meanwhile, the Islamic Republic continues to enrich uranium to near weapons-grade levels and has a stockpile large enough to build multiple nuclear weapons should it choose to do so.

Vakil said that “it will depend on whether the general public, the 60% who have stayed at home, will come out and protect themselves from these hardline views,” Jalili said. “That will be the issue next Friday.”