iran election
An Iranian man votes at a polling station in a snap presidential election to choose a successor to Ebrahim Raisi following his death in a helicopter crash, in Tehran, Iran June 28, 2024. Image Credit: Reuters

Iranians voted on Friday for a new president following the death of Ebrahim Raisi in a helicopter crash, choosing from a tightly controlled group of four candidates loyal to the supreme leader at a time of growing public frustration and Western pressure.

The election coincides with escalating regional tension due to war between Israel and Iran’s allies Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon, as well as increased Western pressure on Iran over its fast-advancing nuclear programme.

While the election is unlikely to bring a major shift in the Islamic Republic’s policies, its outcome could influence the succession to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s 85-year-old supreme leader, in power since 1989.

Khamenei called for a high turnout to offset a legitimacy crisis fuelled by public discontent over economic hardship and curbs on political and social freedom.

“The durability, strength, dignity and reputation of the Islamic Republic depend on people’s presence,” Khamenei told state television after casting his vote. “High turnout is a definite necessity.” The next president is not expected to usher in any major policy shift on Iran’s nuclear programme or support for militia groups across the Middle East, since Khamenei calls all the shots on top state matters.

However, the president runs the government day-to-day and can influence the tone of Iran’s foreign and domestic policy.

A hardline watchdog body made up of six clerics and six jurists aligned with Khamenei vets candidates, and approved only six from an initial pool of 80. Two hardline candidates subsequently dropped out.

Three candidates are hardliners and one is a low-profile comparative moderate, backed by the reformist faction that has largely been sidelined in Iran in recent years.

Critics of Iran’s clerical rule say that low and declining turnouts in recent years show the system’s legitimacy has eroded. Just 48% of voters participated in the 2021 presidential election and turnout plumbed a record low of 41% in a parliamentary election in March.

State television showed queues inside polling stations in several cities. Polls were due to close at 6pm (1430 GMT), but are usually extended as late as midnight. Authorities said the result would be announced on Saturday.

If no candidate wins at least 50% plus one vote from all ballots cast, including blank votes, a run-off between the top two candidates is held on the first Friday after the result is declared.

Prominent among the remaining hardliners are Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, parliament speaker and former commander of the powerful Revolutionary Guards, and Saeed Jalili, a former nuclear negotiator who served for four years in Khamenei’s office.

All four candidates have vowed to revive the flagging economy, beset by mismanagement, state corruption and sanctions re-imposed since 2018, after the United States ditched Tehran’s 2015 nuclear pact with six world powers.

“I think Jalili is the only candidate who raised the issue of justice, fighting corruption and giving value to the poor ...

Iran polls
An Iranian woman casts her ballot during a snap presidential election to choose a successor to Ebrahim Raisi following his death in a helicopter crash, at Iran's consulate in Damascus, Syria June 28, 2024. Image Credit: Reuters

Most importantly he does not link Iran’s foreign policy to the nuclear deal,” said Farzan Sadjadi, a 45-year-old artist in the city of Karaj.

The sole comparative moderate, Massoud Pezeshkian, is faithful to Iran’s theocratic rule but advocates detente with the West, economic reform, social liberalisation and political pluralism.

“We will respect the hijab law, but there should never be any intrusive or inhumane behaviour toward women,” Pezeshkian said after casting his vote.

He was referring to the death of Mahsa Amini, a young Kurdish woman, in 2022 while in morality police custody for allegedly violating the mandatory Islamic dress code.

The unrest sparked by Amini’s death spiralled into the biggest show of opposition to Iran’s clerical rulers in years.

Pezeshkian’s chances hinge on reviving the enthusiasm of reform-minded voters who have largely stayed away from the polls for the last four years after previous pragmatist presidents brought little change. He could also benefit from his rivals’ failure to consolidate the hardline vote.

“I feel Pezeshkian represents both traditional and liberal thoughts,” said architect Pirouz, 45, who said he had planned to boycott the vote until he learned more about Pezeshkian’s plans.