Cues from Iran on who to vote for
text size

Cues from Iran on who to vote for

A banner of presidential candidate Masoud Pezeshkian in Tehran. Reuters
A banner of presidential candidate Masoud Pezeshkian in Tehran. Reuters

The opposition just won a first round of elections, forcing a runoff in which everything depends on where third-party votes go. No, not in France -- in Iran. You could be forgiven for missing it amid all the excitement over the advance of the French hard right, President Joe Biden's car crash debate in the US and the coming immolation of the UK's Conservative Party. Yet Iran's experience is worth attention, not least as a reminder of what to vote for and why. Iran, to recap, is having a snap contest to replace President Ebrahim Raisi, who died in a May helicopter crash. Raisi was also being groomed to succeed the 85-year-old Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as supreme leader, the unelected post that -- as the title suggests -- matters most in the Islamic Republic.

Raisi's death created a challenge for the regime. He wasn't popular, so Khamenei had used all tools at his disposal to ensure a convincing endorsement of his protégé in the 2021 presidential vote. Although Iran always had a very managed form of democracy that excluded any opponent who questioned the Islamic Republic's theocratic system, this time, all pretence of genuine democratic choice was abandoned. No candidate proposing reform within the system in the style of Mohammad Khatami (president from 1997 to 2005) was allowed to compete.

Even regime moderates, represented by former President Hassan Rouhani (2013 to 2021), were reduced to running an ex-central banker with no prospect of success. The ruse worked in the sense that Raisi won a thumping 75% of the vote. But it came at the cost of the lowest turnout on record, down almost 25 percentage points from the previous election, according to a regime that marks its own electoral homework.

Since then, Raisi had deepened the rift between the government and a growing number of Iranians. In a crackdown on female dress codes, a young woman, Mahsa Amini, died in custody after Iran's morality police detained her for not wearing a headscarf in the prescribed manner. The protests that followed in 2022 and 2023 were the largest since Iran's Islamic revolution, quelled only after hundreds more deaths.

So what to do about electing a replacement for the deceased president?

Khamenei's Guardian Council -- the elections gatekeeper -- has again allowed a system reformist to run, aiming to boost turnout. It wasn't one of the movement's leaders, who are either in jail or under house arrest, but Masoud Pezeshkian, a former heart surgeon who served as Minister of Health and Medical Education under Mr Khatami and had been barred from running against Raisi in 2021. Mr Pezeshkian has promised to ensure more humane enforcement of hijab laws. He also said he'd try to mend fences with the West as the only means of improving a dire economy and re-enter nuclear negotiations to do so. He won Friday's first-round vote by 44.36% to 40.35% for his ultra-conservative rival, Saeed Jalili. Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, a more pragmatic hardliner thought to be favoured by Iran's powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, got 14.4%.

The key figure, however, was the turnout, which at 39.93% was a further eight percentage points down from 2021. As the International Crisis Group's Iran Director Ali Vaez put it to me, everyone involved was a loser. The regime and Mr Pezeshkian both lost because turnout was so low; Jalili and Ghalibaf because they were beaten. Clearly, millions of Iranians also decided they could only lose if they continued to vote in this charade of democracy. Better to make turnout a referendum on the system. It's worth thinking that rather desperate decision through. First of all, Iranian elections may be a sham, but they do affect policy. Mr Khatami and Rouhani made different decisions -- including how severely to impose hijab laws and whether to engage with the West -- than did more conservative presidents, such as Raisi or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

For Iranians deciding whether to turn out for round two of voting on July 5, the choice is between ensuring a marginal improvement in their situation and holding out for regime change, with all the potential for chaos and renewal that implies. If they stay away again, Jalili will almost certainly win, gaining most of Ghalibaf's votes.

Against the backdrop of Israel's war in Gaza, the picture is at least as concerning for outsiders. Jalili is as socially conservative as Raisi, but even more hawkish on foreign policy, including nuclear, at a time when a regionwide conflict has never seemed closer. Khamenei makes calls of war and peace, but the government's cumulative decisions could either widen or narrow the path to war.

More broadly, as an increasing number of voters in the West despair of centrist parties that appear to have run out of ideas on how to solve critical issues such as inequality, falling productivity and rising immigration, it's worth remembering that having the genuine power to change your leaders is precious, easily lost and should top our voting priorities. In Europe and the US, few today have experienced what it means to live without the protection of democratic institutions and the political moderation they tend to produce.

Whether on the left or right, we all should ask ourselves some tough questions about whether those who deal in religious or social absolutes, who play on division, dismiss democratic guardrails such as judicial independence or offer snake-oil solutions to intractable problems can be trusted with protecting our most basic rights. If you aren't convinced of how much those are worth, ask an Iranian. Bloomberg

Marc Champion is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Europe, Russia and the Middle East. He was previously Istanbul bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal.

Marc Champion

Bloomberg View Writer

Marc Champion writes editorials on international affairs for Bloomberg View. He was previously Istanbul bureau chief for The Wall Street Journal

Do you like the content of this article?