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Facing stark choices, Iranians vote in competitive presidential runoff

TEHRAN, IRAN - JULY 5: An Iranian woman and child cast a ballot at a polling station on July 5, 2024 in Tehran, Iran. The second round of Iran's presidential elections was held while no candidate won the majority of votes in the first round of elections last month. In the second round, Saeed Jalili, who is known as a radical candidate, faced Masoud Pezeshkian, a reformist candidate. (Photo by Majid Saeedi/Getty Images)  (Majid Saeedi)
By Farnaz Fassihi New York Times

One pledged he would confront Iran’s enemies; the other vowed to make peace with the world. One intends to double down on social restrictions; the other promises to ease stifling rules for young people and women. One identifies as an Islamic ideologue, the other as a pragmatic reformist.

Iranians were voting for the country’s next president on Friday in a race that has turned into a fierce competition and where, for the first time in more than a decade, the outcome was difficult to predict.

The runoff on Friday, between the ultraconservative Saeed Jalili and the reformist Dr. Masoud Pezeshkian, is taking place after a general election last week failed to produce a candidate with the required 50% of the vote.

The result may hinge on how many Iranians who sat out the vote in the general election decide to participate in the runoff.

As polls closed at midnight Friday, voter turnout stood at 50% — about 10 percentage points higher than during the first round last week, when it was at a record low 40%, and in line with what the government and the candidates had hoped for. Nearly 30 million votes were cast, according to Iranian news reports and the campaigns of the candidates.

Some Iranians had vowed to boycott the vote out of anger at the government or alienation and apathy over the failure of previous governments to produce meaningful changes. The higher turnout was attributed to people breaking their pledge out of fear of Jalili and his hard-line views.

Analysts expected the increased turnout to primarily benefit Pezeshkian because nonvoters tended to be young people and liberals disillusioned with the system who were considered more likely to back the reformist.

The authorities went to great lengths to spur voting. State television showed long lines of hikers, paper ballots in hand, trudging to the 18,000-foot summit of Mount Damavand, Iran’s tallest peak, to cast their votes in a drop box that had been airlifted there. Couples showed up in wedding attire at polling stations and the army dropped ballot boxes in remote terrain where nomadic tribes roam, state media showed.

Kourosh Soleimani, a resident of Isfahan, said on the social media app ClubHouse that he saw buses ferrying supporters of Jalili from villages to polling stations, where they were given free lunches.

Representatives for both campaigns said in telephone interviews that the race remained close, and each claimed their candidate was leading by about 1 million votes. The results are expected Saturday morning.

Voters faced a choice between two starkly different outlooks on how to govern the country as it faces a multitude of challenges at home and abroad. The two candidates represent polar ends of the political spectrum: Jalili is a hard-liner known for his dogmatic ideas, while Pezeshkian has gained traction among voters by calling for moderation in both foreign and domestic policy.

Jalili rejects any accommodation with the West, saying Iran should build its economy by expanding ties with other countries, mainly Russia and China. A former nuclear negotiator, he opposed the 2015 nuclear deal for making too many concessions and supports the mandatory hijab law for women and restrictions on the internet and social media

Pezeshkian has vowed to reinvigorate the economy by negotiating with the West to remove sanctions. He has promised to abolish the morality police, who enforce the hijab law, and also to lift internet restrictions and rely on technocrats to run the country.

“This election is about competing currents, it’s not about competing candidates per se,” said Sanam Vakil, the Middle East director for Chatham House. “The currents reflect an attempt at preserving revolutionary values, the Islamic ideology and the notion of resistance within the Iranian state versus an alternative that isn’t quite reform but a more moderate and open social and political climate.”

In Iran’s theocratic system of governance, the president does not have the power to upend major policies that could lead to the kind of change that many Iranians would like to see. That power resides in the person of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Two previous presidents who were elected in landslides pledged changes but failed to deliver, leading to widespread disillusionment.

Nevertheless, the president is not entirely powerless, analysts say. The president is responsible for setting the domestic agenda, choosing the members of the Cabinet and even exercising some influence in foreign policy.

Khamenei voted early Friday morning at the religious center attached to his compound, state television showed. He cast his ballot in a box placed on a lone table in a big hallway and waved.

“At this stage people should naturally be more resolved and finish the job,” Khamenei said. He gave no indication of which candidate he supported.

Polling stations opened Friday at 8 a.m. and are scheduled to close at 10 p.m., although an extension is likely. Many Iranians vote in the evening because of the summer heat.

Khamenei said Wednesday that he was disappointed by the low turnout in the first round of voting, and acknowledged some disenchantment with Islamic rule. But he dismissed efforts to equate low voter turnout with a rejection of the system and called on people to vote.

“We have said this repeatedly,” he said. “People’s participation is a support for the Islamic Republic system, it is a source of honor, it is a source of pride.”

With the runoff, turnout was expected to be slightly higher because of the stark polarization, but also because many people fear the potential for an extreme hard-line administration. The Interior Ministry said representatives from both candidates would be present at polling stations during voting and ballot counting.

Jalili is part of a fringe but influential hard-line political party known as Paydari with followers who look up to him more as an ideological leader than a politician. Pezeshkian, a cardiologist and former health minister and member of parliament, was until recently not widely known outside political and health circles.

Their lineup of advisers and campaign staff reflects the stark differences in their policies and has given voters a glimpse into what each administration might look like.

Jalili’s team includes conservative hard-liners who pledge that his presidency would be a continuation of the “resistance policies” of former President Ebrahim Raisi, whose death in a helicopter crash in May prompted an emergency election. Military commanders and senior clerics have endorsed him, praising his zealotry in religious and revolutionary matters.

Pezeshkian has assembled a team of seasoned technocrats, diplomats and ministers, including former Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who are trekking the country in support of him mostly by warning of doomsday if Jalili is elected.

Reformists are counting on measurable defections from the conservative camp, where Jalili has long been a divisive figure. Many conservatives consider him too extreme, analysts say, and fear his presidency would deepen the rupture between the government and the public and put Iran on a collision course with the West.

Polls conducted by government agencies seemed to indicate that a sizable number of voters who supported the more moderate conservative candidate, Mohammad Baqer Ghalibaf, the speaker of parliament, would flock to Pezeshkian in an effort to block Jalili’s chances for the presidency.

Many Iranians are still resolved to boycott the vote. Mahsa, a 34-year-old accountant in Isfahan, said she would not cast a ballot and was not buying the logic that she had to pick between “bad and worse.”

But others said in interviews and on social media that they were having a change of heart, mostly because they were terrified of Jalili’s ascent.

Babak, a 37-year-old businessperson in Tehran who asked that his last name be withheld out of fear of retribution, said he and family members would break their boycott and vote for Pezeshkian. “We kept going back and forth on what to do, and at the end we decided we must try to stop Jalili, otherwise we will suffer more,” he said.

A prominent political activist who had not voted in the first round, Keyvan Samimi, said in a video message posted on social media from Tehran that he had decided to back Pezeshkian. “We are casting a protest vote to save Iran,” he said. The frenzy against Jalili has intensified as the vote has drawn near. Prominent political figures compared him to the Taliban and accused him of running a “shadow government.”

Jalili’s supporters pushed back, accusing the reformists of name-calling and fearmongering. They counterattacked by characterizing Pezeshkian as a puppet of the former moderate president, Hassan Rouhani. They have said the doctor lacks a real plan and was overreaching on issues that would fall outside his authority as president — particularly his promise to abolish the widely detested morality police and normalize ties with the United States.

Reza Salehi, 42, a conservative who works in public relations and campaigned for Jalili, said in an interview from Tehran that “Mr. Jalili is absolutely not dogmatic.” He added that the candidate was better prepared to govern and that the so-called shadow government was more similar to a think tank and not the sinister plot that his rivals claimed.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.