Low turnout expected for Iran’s snap election


Iranians will ✌️vote✌️ for their next president this Friday, after their last president died in a helicopter crash in the country’s mountainous north-west last month.

Those aggressive air quotes above are because polling suggests most Iranians won’t vote at all, and those who do vote must choose between candidates effectively picked by the country’s supreme ruler, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Still, the six approved candidates continue to proclaim their grand vision for the country over five live televised debates. So before we take a look at the line-up, let’s set the scene for what the incoming president will inherit. 

A battered economy

While all candidates are pledging to fix the economy, that won’t be easy – they’ll be inheriting a rial that’s lost 94% of its value in a decade. Meanwhile, inflation is hovering around 40% – meat alone is up a juicy 70% from last year, making going vegan seem more pressing than trendy.

Still, a boost in oil sales (see below) has helped keep Iran’s economy afloat, though the World Bank projects a slow-down this year as global uncertainty persists and sanctions bite. The candidates are shrugging all that off, promising 8% growth. Their plans? Foggy. Meanwhile…

Thousands of sanctions 

When the US pulled out of the 2015 nuclear deal (the ‘JCPOA’) in 2018 and ratcheted sanctions back up, Iran’s oil exports collapsed from around two million to 250,000 barrels per day. But China has moved to fill the gap, buying around 1.3 million barrels from Iran per day, or 90% of Iran’s total oil exports.

Meanwhile, Iran has continued to: a) fund its proxies like Hezbollah, Hamas and the Houthis; b) supply drones for Russian attacks on Ukrainian cities; and c) accumulate more than 30 times the JCPOA limit of enriched uranium, and at purity levels 30 times any civilian requirement. That’s why the UN’s nuclear watchdog just condemned Iran’s opaque approach to its nuclear program.

And yet back home, Iran has…

Unhappy citizens 

Voter turnout hit its lowest level in the Islamic Republic’s history in 2021 (48%), then plunged to 41% in the parliamentary elections earlier this year.

And there’s data to suggest Friday’s election could go even lower: a Dutch institute found that 65% of the 77,216 Iranians it surveyed won’t bother voting, and 34% weren’t even aware of the timing. Voting? What voting?

So… can a new president change any of that?

Not easily. Here are two examples involving the last guy: when people took to the streets in 2022 after Mahsa Amini’s death at the hands of the so-called morality police, the protestors hardly mentioned the president’s name. This wasn’t because he was popular (he wasn’t) but because he was irrelevant. Folks directed their anger at the guy in control: the supreme leader.

And that brings us to the second example: when that same president died last month, Iran’s supreme leader urged the public not to worry, declaring that the government will operate without the slightest disruption“. Now, was that a reassuring message, or a subtle reminder of who’s really in charge? Perhaps both.

And this brings us to the contenders…

80 hopefuls applied to run for president, but only six got the green light from the supreme leader’s hand-picked Guardian Council.

The candidate making the biggest splash is the sole ‘reformist’, Masoud Pezeshkian. Trained as a heart surgeon, the 69-year old has done a stint as health minister (2001-2005) and served five terms in parliament. He’s pledging to revive nuclear talks with the West and adopt a softer stance on the country’s mandatory hijab policy, though he’s still very much a regime loyalist.

The remaining five hardliners all variously vow further disengagement from the West to instead seek cosier ties with Moscow and Beijing. The two favourites are Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf (the parliamentary speaker) and Saeed Jalili (a former nuclear negotiator experienced in engaging with Western powers).

But this mix of candidates seems to follow the past pattern: it excludes anyone seen as a possible threat, but still offers the figleaf of a ‘hardliner v reformist’ choice to drive turnout and legitimise the status quo.

Still, if turnout keeps dropping, that strategy might not work much longer.

INTRIGUE’S TAKE

Abroad, whoever wins on Friday might get more room to manoeuvre in this emerging ‘multipolar’ world of ours. Have Western sanctions crippled your oil exports? China is a big, no-questions-asked buyer. Has UN-led isolation left you stranded? Another permanent UN Security Council member (Russia) will only be too happy to pose for photos.

But back home, the supreme ruler’s time is running out (he’s 85 and unwell); succession thereafter is still a black box; and the Iranian people are unhappy. Plus, when a regime optimises for loyalty over competence, it almost imposes mediocrity as a prerequisite. So against that kind of backdrop, it’s hard to see Iran’s next president succeeding where the last guy failed.

Also worth noting:

  • The US will again allow Iran to run ~30 absentee voter stations in the US for Friday’s election. In Washington and New York, the Iranian Interests Section of the Pakistani embassy (Iran’s de facto consular presence in the US) will serve as voting locations.
  • Iran’s former chamber of commerce president said yesterday (Monday) that sanctions against Iran have cost the nation $1.2T in damages between 2011 and 2023.
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