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Reformist Masoud Pezeshkian Reaches Runoff in Iranian Presidential Election

by Lily Chang
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A reformist candidate critical of Iranian government policies, including the mandatory headscarf law, will face a hardline conservative in a presidential runoff next week, Iran’s Interior Ministry announced Saturday. It follows a special vote called after the previous leader, Ebrahim Raisi, died in a helicopter crash last month.

The second round of voting, scheduled for July 5, will pit reformist Masoud Pezeshkian against Saeed Jalili, an ultraconservative former nuclear negotiator. The need for a runoff was prompted by low voter turnout and a field of three leading candidates, with Iranian law requiring a winner to win more than 50 percent of all votes cast.

According to the Interior Ministry, 60 percent of Iranians did not vote on Friday; analysts and candidates’ aides attribute the decision largely to protests against the government, which has ignored calls for meaningful change.

Prominent Iranian economist Siamak Ghassemi noted on social media that voters were sending a strong message. “In one of the most competitive presidential elections, in which reformists and conservatives were heavily involved, a 60 percent majority of Iranians turned down both groups.”

Iran faces numerous challenges, from internal turmoil to international tensions. Its economy is in ruins due to Western sanctions, citizens’ freedoms are increasingly restricted, and its foreign policy is largely driven by hardline leaders.

Public skepticism about the ability of a new president to bring about change was evident in the low turnout, a historic low for a presidential election and even lower than the 41 percent turnout recorded in parliamentary elections earlier this year. The low turnout is a setback for the country’s ruling clerics, who have long viewed voter participation as a measure of the legitimacy of the vote and had hoped for a 50 percent turnout.

In the official results announced on Saturday, Dr. Pezeshkian led with 10.4 million votes (42.4%), followed by Jalili with 9.4 million (38.6%). A third conservative candidate, Mohammad Baqer Ghalibaf, the current speaker of parliament and a former mayor of Tehran, came in third with 3.3 million votes (13.8%).

It is not yet clear whether a runoff between two candidates from opposite ends of the political spectrum will motivate more voters to participate, as many Iranians view the candidates as part of a system they reject.

“This is going to be a very difficult and challenging week,” said Mohammad Mobin, a Tehran-based analyst who worked on Dr. Pezeshkian’s campaign. “To get voters out, we have to be strategic.” He added, referring to conservatives: “People think there is no difference between us and them.”

Simple arithmetic suggests that Jalili could surpass 50% if he wins Ghalibaf’s votes. However, in previous polls, many Ghalibaf supporters have indicated that they would not support Jalili. Dr. Pezeshkian could also attract votes from those wary of a Jalili presidency.

Despite the campaign’s critical tone, all the candidates were part of Iran’s political establishment, approved by a committee of Islamic clerics and jurists. All but one, Dr. Pezeshkian, were considered conservatives aligned with the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Jalili, a former nuclear negotiator, is probably the closest candidate to Khamenei. He leads the far-right Paydari party and advocates the most hardline views on domestic and foreign policy. Jalili has said that Iran does not need to negotiate with the United States for economic success.

Dr. Pezeshkian, a heart surgeon and veteran of the Iran-Iraq war, served in parliament and as Iran’s health minister. After his wife died in a car crash, he raised his children as a single father and never remarried. His identity as an Azeri, one of Iran’s ethnic minorities, endeared him to many voters. Dr. Pezeshkian, backed by former reformist President Mohammad Khatami, has expressed openness to nuclear negotiations with the West, framing them as an economic issue aimed at evading sanctions.

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