A supporter of Saeed Jalili, Expediency Discernment Council member, former chief nuclear negotiator, and Iran's 2024 early presidential elections candidate, is waving a flag while standing on a square in downtown Tehran, Iran, on June 30, 2024. REUTERS./

By Parisa Hafezi

 – The zealous anti-Westerner and the low-key moderate hoping to become Iran‘s next president could struggle to mobilise millions of supporters in Friday’s run-off election amid voter apathy about a tightly-controlled contest.

Over 60% of voters abstained from the June 28 ballot for a successor to Ebrahim Raisi following his death in a helicopter crash, a historic low turnout which critics of the government see as a vote of no confidence in the Islamic Republic.

ANALYSIS: Iran’s Elections Are Setback for Khamenei 

Friday’s vote will be a tight race between lawmaker Massoud Pezeshkian, the sole moderate in the original field of four candidates, and former Revolutionary Guards member Saeed Jalili.

Both candidates have sought to engage voters by offering competing visions, with Jalili offering hawkish foreign and domestic policies and Pezeshkian advocating more social and political freedoms. Both pledge to revive the economy, plagued by mismanagement, state corruption, and sanctions reimposed since 2018 over Iran‘s nuclear programme.

The clerical establishment needs a high turnout for its own credibility, particularly as it faces regional tension over the war between Israel and Iranian ally Hamas in Gaza, and increased Western pressure over its fast-advancing nuclear programme.

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But growing numbers of Iranians have abstained at elections in recent years. The previous record low turnout was 41% in a parliamentary election in March, while Raisi won in 2021 on a turnout of about 49%, in which authorities disqualified heavy-weight conservative and moderate rivals.

“The run-off is a clash of visions: Jalili’s hardline ideology versus Pezeshkian’s call for essential moderation and change,” said Ali Vaez of International Crisis Group.

“Beyond opposing Jalili, Pezeshkian must compete with voter apathy and secure at least some votes from this critical silent majority to win the election.”

A supporter of former Member of Parliament and Iran’s early Presidential election candidate, Masoud Pezeshkian, is holding up electoral posters while standing on a square in downtown Tehran, Iran, on June 30, 2024. REUTERS./

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 Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei calls all the shots on top state matters.

However, the president can influence the tone of Iran‘s domestic and foreign policy.

With Khamenei aged 85, the next president will be closely involved in selecting the next supreme leader. Insiders say Khamenei is keen on a loyal and compliant president who can ensure a smooth eventual succession to his successor.


The rivals are establishment men loyal to Iran‘s theocratic rule, but analysts said Jalili’s win would signal a potentially even more antagonistic domestic and foreign policy.

Pezeshkian’s triumph at the polls might promote a pragmatic foreign policy, ease tensions over now-stalled negotiations with major powers to revive the nuclear pact, and improve the prospects for social liberalisation and political pluralism.

To take victory from his hardline rival, Pezeshkian also needs to attract votes from supporters of hardline parliament speaker Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, who finished third in the first round, while mobilising a mostly young population chafing at political and social restrictions to vote for him again.

“Given Jalili’s extremism, I think it’s entirely possible more moderate conservative voters who cast their vote for Qalibaf will either vote for Pezeshkian or stay home next Friday,” said Eurasia group analyst Gregory Brew.

ANALYSIS: Who Could Be the Successor to Ali Khamenei?

Backed by the reformist faction that has largely been sidelined in Iran in recent years, Pezeshkian’s campaign has been largely focused on “fear of the worse”.

“I will vote this time … because Jalili’s presidency means more restrictions … This is choosing between bad and worse,” said Mehrshad, 34, a teacher in Tehran.

With no intention of confronting the powerful security hawks and clerical rulers, analysts said, Pezeshkian is not expected to gain support from many reform-minded Iranians, who have largely stayed away from the polls for the last four years.

“Pezeshkian is part of the establishment. He will follow Khamenei’s orders … Let the world know that Iranians do not want the Islamic Republic, I will not vote,” said university student Farzaneh in the central city of Yazd.

Activists and opposition groups have called for a boycott distributing the hashtag #ElectionCircus on social media platform X.

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(Writing by Parisa Hafezi, Editing by William Maclean)

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