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A man with a girl casts his ballot at a polling station during an Iran's snap presidential election, called after the death of late President Ebrahim Raisi in a helicopter crash in May, in Tehran, Iran. Ilya Pitalev / Sputnik via AP

Election Apathy and Radical Shifts: Iran’s Electoral and Political Landscape

Several key points emerged from the first round of Iran’s presidential elections on Friday, June 28. In spite of intense government efforts to boost turnout and promote civic engagement,  only around 40 percent of eligible voters participated in the election—marking the lowest turnout in the history of Iran’s presidential elections since the establishment of Islamic Republic in 1979.

Why Vote?

First and foremost, the election highlighted the inability of both the “establishment” and the “reformists” to mobilize the Iranian people and bring out the vote despite sustained efforts by both sides. The Iranian government, including Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, publicly urged citizens to participate, emphasizing the importance of voting as a civic duty and a means to support the Islamic Republic. Similarly, leaders from the reformist camp, including former Presidents Mohammad Khatami and Hassan Rouhani and the relatively popular former Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, also called citizens to the ballot box. Despite these appeals, the voter turnout was unprecedentedly low—a sign of the growing disillusionment and apathy gripping the Iranian electorate.

There are several reasons for voters’ frustration with the electoral system, some of which stretch back years. Although the election of Rouhani to the presidency in 2013 was initially proclaimed a watershed moment in Iranian politics, disillusionment grew as he struggled to deliver on many of his domestic promises—notably failing to lift the house arrests of Green Movement leaders Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, a promise that had been a cornerstone of his campaign.

Rouhani’s administration also had little success in improving the economic situation for the vast majority of Iranians as the nation’s economy grappled with rapid inflation and stubbornly high unemployment rates. Although the Rouhani administration had some success in easing international sanctions from 2015 to 2018 under the “Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action” (JCPOA) nuclear accord, they were reinstituted in full force after U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew from the deal, discrediting Iran’s reformist faction and sending the economy into a tailspin. These economic challenges worsened under the administration of the late President Ebrahim Raisi, who spurned any and all dialogue with the West and viewed Iran’s international isolation as an opportunity for self-reliance. The Iranian political system’s apparent inability to address its catastrophic economic woes led the people to lose faith in the government’s ability to effect positive change at all.

Moreover, the brutal suppression of popular movements, including several iterations of economic protests from 2017 to 2022 and the Mahsa Amini protests in 2022-23, have sown severe distrust among Iranian citizens. These events, marked by state violence and hundreds of civilian deaths, have contributed to a growing perception that leaders operating within the current political system are not capable of carrying out genuine reforms. Faced with a choice between leaders they regard as wholly unsatisfactory, many Iranians—roughly 60 percent, if tallies are accurate—simply refused to vote at all. Although they did not take to the street, as doing so might risk a crackdown, they have simply decided to abstain from political activity altogether as a way to voice their dissatisfaction

This failure to bring people to the polls could also be attributed to a second reason. Unlike in previous presidential elections, the intellectual leadership of Iran’s reformist parties were split on whether to urge or discourage participation. In the past, as in the 2013 and 2017 presidential elections, the leadership of the reformist parties, including figures like Khatami, Mousavi, and Karroubi, unanimously called on the people to vote. This unity was crucial in mobilizing a significant portion of the electorate. However, this time, there was a clear division among the reformists; while Karroubi and Khatami encouraged people to go to the polls and vote, Mir-Hossein Mousavi and his wife Zahra Rahnavard, both of whom remain under house arrest, urged the public to boycott the election. They publicly stated that they would not vote and discouraged others from participating, arguing that the electoral process was fundamentally flawed and incapable of bringing about meaningful change. This division likely contributed to a dip in turnout among reformist voters; although the reformists’ candidate, Masoud Pezeshkian, came in first place with 44 percent of the vote, this share is unlikely to increase in the second round as the divided conservatives coalesce into one bloc. The lack of a cohesive strategy among reformist leaders further weakened their ability to present a united front against the conservative establishment.

A Polarized Run-Off

Another significant development evident in this election has been the growing support for radical figures within the conservative “Principlist” camp of Iran’s political spectrum, sometimes known as Osul-Garāyān. It would appear that voters sympathetic to this faction are inclined to support increasingly radical and firebrand candidates. The “traditional” Principlists, who sought pragmatism and good governance even as they expressed ideological fealty to the Islamic Republic, have been dramatically weakened, in favor of those more inclined towards hardline policies and a rejection of compromise. In the first round of voting on June 28, Saeed Jalili, a hardline reactionary, secured 40 percent of the vote and advanced to the runoff; Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, a traditional conservative, only won 14 percent.

Although Iran’s reformist bloc has won nearly every election that it was allowed to honestly participate in, it has also been weakened—largely because of growing apathy among voters who oppose the status quo, but no longer believe that reformist candidates can change it and fear that voting for them endorses the system as a whole. On the other hand, pro-government or ‘establishment’ supporters are shifting further to the right, choosing to back more radical figures like Jalili. This polarization suggests a deepening divide within Iran’s political landscape, with both sides moving towards extreme positions. The growing polarization on both sides could lead to increased instability and a more volatile political environment in the future.

In the end, the first round of voting in this year’s presidential election underscored a significant shift in Iran’s political dynamics. The historically low voter turnout reflects widespread disillusionment with both the establishment and the reformists’ ability to effect meaningful change. The division within the reformist camp and the growing inclination towards radical candidates among conservatives suggest a polarized society increasingly at odds with itself. As Iran continues to navigate this treacherous and complex political landscape, these trends could have profound implications for its future governance and stability. The challenges ahead will require steady leadership and novel approaches to address the deep-seated issues facing the nation.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.

Issue: Politics & Governance
Country: Iran

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Arman Mahmoudian, PhD, is a lecturer of Russian and Middle Eastern Studies and also a researcher at the USF Global and National Security Institutes, where he focuses on Iran’s regional policy and Shia militias in the Middle East. Arman has appeared on Al-Jazeera and the BBC and has been published by the National Interest, Stimson Center, Harvard Journal of Middle Eastern Politics & Policy, London School of Economics Middle East Center, Atlantic Council, Middle East Eye, Politics Today, New Arab, Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, and Trends Research and Advisory. Follow Arman on Twitter @MahmoudianArman.


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