Iranian voters faced with tough choice in presidential runoff election

One has vowed to confront Iran’s enemies, another has pledged to make peace with the world. One plans to double down on social restrictions, another promises to relax stifling rules for young people and women. One sees himself as an Islamic ideologue, the other as a pragmatic reformer.

Iranians voted on Friday to choose their next president in a fiercely contested election that has made the outcome difficult to predict for the first time in more than a decade.

After no candidate received the necessary 50 percent of the vote in last week’s general election, Friday’s runoff election will be between ultra-conservative Said Djalili and reformist Dr Massoud Pezeshkian.

The outcome may depend on how many Iranians who did not vote in the general election turn out to take part in the runoff election. Turnout last week was a record low of 40 percent, with most Iranians boycotting the polls out of anger at the government or a sense of alienation and apathy at the failure of the previous administration to bring about meaningful change.

Voting hours were extended until midnight local time, or 4:30 p.m. Eastern Time. The government and campaign officials worked desperately to get people to the polls. Iranian media reported that by 9 p.m., some 27 million Iranians had voted, roughly 45 percent of the eligible electorate, and that figure was expected to reach 48 percent by the time polls closed.

If realized, this would be eight percentage points higher than in the first round of voting, but would still be a disappointment for the government. Analysts had expected the increased turnout to mainly benefit Dr Pezeshkian, because those who did not vote tended to be young people and liberals disillusioned with the system, who were thought to be more likely to support reformers. But Pezeshkian’s camp had hoped that turnout would be even higher.

The authorities did everything they could to encourage voting. A long line of hikers holding ballots They walked to the 18,000-foot summit of Mount Damavand, Iran’s highest mountain, to cast their votes using ballot boxes that were airlifted in. State media said the couple arrived at the polling station in wedding dresses, and that the army had dropped the ballots off in a remote area populated by nomadic people.

Kouros Soleimani, a resident of Isfahan, said on the social media app Clubhouse that he saw Jalili’s supporters being bused from their villages to polling stations where they cast their votes. A free lunch was provided.

Representatives for both campaigns said in phone interviews that the race remains close, with each candidate leading by about 1 million votes. Results are due to be announced Saturday morning.

Facing numerous challenges at home and abroad, voters were faced with a choice between two very different ideas on how to govern the country. The two candidates represent opposite ends of the political spectrum: Jalili is a hardliner known for his dogmatic views, while Pezeshkian has garnered voter support by appealing to moderation in both foreign and domestic policy.

Jalili rejects compromise with the West and says Iran should expand ties with other countries, especially Russia and China, to develop its economy. A former nuclear negotiator, he opposed the 2015 nuclear deal as too generous and supports mandatory hijab laws for women and restrictions on the internet and social media.

Pezeshkian has vowed to negotiate with Western countries to lift sanctions and revive the economy, as well as abolish the morality police that enforces hijab laws, lift internet restrictions and let technocrats run the country.

“This election is about competing trends, not competing candidates per se,” said Sanam Baqir, Middle East director at Chatham House. “The trends reflect a conflict between an attempt within the Iranian state to preserve its revolutionary values, Islamic ideology and notions of resistance, and an alternative – a less reformist but more moderate and open social and political climate.”

In Iran’s theocratic system, the president has no power to reverse key policies that would bring about the changes many Iranians want. That power lies with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Two previous presidents, elected by overwhelming margins, have disappointed Iranians by promising reforms but failing to deliver.

But the president is not completely powerless, analysts say: He is responsible for setting domestic policy, selecting his cabinet and even exerting some influence over foreign policy.

Khamenei voted early Friday at the compound’s religious center, placing his ballot in a box on a table in a large hallway and waving his hand, state television said.

“At this stage, of course the people should be more determined and get the job done,” Khamenei said, without saying which candidate he would support.

Polling stations are scheduled to open at 8 am on Friday and close at 10 pm but may be extended – the summer heat has led many Iranians to vote in the evening.

Khamenei said Wednesday he was disappointed with the low turnout in the first round of voting and acknowledged disillusionment with Islamic governance, but rejected efforts to equate low turnout with rejection of the system and urged people to vote.

“We have repeatedly said,” he said, “that the participation of our people is what underpins the system of the Islamic Republic and is a source of honor and pride.”

Turnout was expected to be slightly higher in the runoff election because of the extreme polarization between the two factions and the fears that it could lead to an overly hardline government. The Interior Ministry said representatives of both candidates would be present at polling stations during voting and the counting of the votes.

Jalili is a member of the small but influential hardline Paydari party, whose supporters revere him as an ideological leader rather than a politician. Dr Pezeshkian, a cardiologist, former health minister and member of parliament, was until recently little known outside political and health circles.

Their respective appointees and campaign staff reflect stark policy differences and offer voters a glimpse into what each administration might look like.

Jalili’s team includes hardline conservatives who have vowed his presidency would be a continuation of the “policy of resistance” of former President Ibrahim Raisi, whose death in a helicopter crash in May prompted snap elections. Military commanders and senior clerics have backed him, praising his commitment to religion and revolutionary issues.

Dr Pezeshkian has assembled a team of skilled technologists, diplomats and ministers, including former Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who are primarily touring the country in support of him, warning of catastrophe if Jalili is elected.

Reformists are hoping for a visible break with conservatives, many of whom see Jalili as too radical and worry that his presidency could deepen the rift between the government and the people and push Iran into conflict with the West, analysts say.

Opinion polls conducted by government agencies seem to suggest that a significant number of voters who support the more moderate conservative candidate, Parliament Speaker Mohamed Baker Ghalibaf, will rally to Dr Pezeshkian in an attempt to thwart Mr Jalili’s chances of winning the presidency.

Many Iranians remain determined to boycott the vote. Mahsa, a 34-year-old accountant from Isfahan, said she planned to stay quiet and that she could not accept the logic that people had to choose between “bad and worse.”

But in interviews and on social media, some said they had changed their minds, mainly because they feared Mr. Djalili’s rise to power.

Babak, a 37-year-old businessman in Tehran, who asked not to give his last name for fear of retaliation, said he and his family were calling off the boycott and would vote for Dr. Pezeshkian. “We wondered for a long time what to do, but in the end we decided that if we don’t stop Jalili, we’ll suffer more,” he said.

“I don’t think there’s any way to vote,” said Keyvan Samimi, a prominent political activist who did not vote in the first round. In a video message posted on social media From Tehran, Mr. Jalili announced his decision to support Dr. Pezeshkian. “We are casting a protest vote to save Iran,” he said. As the voting day nears, enthusiasm for Mr. Jalili is growing. Prominent politicians have likened him to the Taliban and accused him of running a “shadow government.”

Jalili’s supporters hit back, accusing reformers of name-calling and fear-mongering. They countered by casting Pezeshkian as a puppet of former President Hassan Rouhani, a moderate. They say he has no realistic plan and is overstepping his purview as president on issues that are outside his purview, particularly his promises to abolish the widely hated morality police and normalize ties with the United States.

“Jalili is by no means dogmatic,” Reza Salehi, 42, a conservative spokesman for Mr. Jalili’s campaign, said in an interview in Tehran, adding that his candidate was better prepared to rule and that his so-called shadow government was more like a think tank, not a sinister conspiracy as his rivals claim.

Rayleigh Niconazar A report from Belgium.

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