Until May 2024, preparations were underway to get Iran’s late president Ebrahim Raisi re-elected in 2025. Raisi had won his first term in a non-competitive election in June 2021 but died in a helicopter crash in May.

His presidency was seen as a sign of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei's decision to rid the system of the unpredictability of competitive elections: all moderates and reformists, who had until then been tolerated as ‘opposition’ were disqualified. Raisi was thought to have been chosen to play a significant role in Khamenei's succession plans. But he died in a helicopter crash on May 19, 2024. Snap elections were called, and a ‘reform’ candidate, Masoud Pezeshkian, was surprisingly allowed to run by the un-elected Guardian Council, effectively controlled by Khamenei and tasked to vet candidates.

How come this happened?

Many believe Pezeshkian was included to create a semblance of competition and boost voter turnout, which has dropped to historic lows. In the 2023 parliamentary elections, the officially reported turnout was 41 percent—the lowest since 1979. In major cities like Tehran, turnout was as low as 15 percent, with some candidates entering parliament (Majles) with support from less than 6 percent of eligible voters.

This Friday’s presidential election in Iran is the first one after the “Woman, Life, Freedom” protests of 2021 –the most radical movement since the inception of the Islamic Republic in 1979. The movement reflected a majority demand to live a normal life under a secular government, with respect for human rights, women’s rights, and sensible trade and foreign policies. The election comes after three elections since 2020 in which many former officials were disqualified, and the turnout continually dropped –highlighting an almost complete rupture between the people and the ruling elite.

A man holding a campaign poster of presidential candidate Masoud Pezeshkian, Tehran (June 2024)

So it may be that the Supreme Leader felt compelled to let in a more palatable candidate to woo at least some of those who until a few weeks ago seemed like they’d never vote again.

The stage set for a controlled election

Six candidates were approved to compete for the presidency. But the forces at play can be grouped in three: first, those who support the status quo and seek to follow Raisi’s ‘path’; second, the ‘reform’ camp who back Pezeshkian, arguing that he’d be able to effect some change, however minimal; last, those who say Iran’s recent history shows real change cannot come out of the ballot box –and see Pezeshkian’s candidacy as a tactic to hinder more radical protests.

What does each group stand for?

The Principlist camp are hardline supporters of the Supreme Leader and his policies, which were implemented by Raisi. They defend conservative religious and political norms, including mandatory Hijab, and strict control on the press and the internet. Their chances rise as turnout falls, since the loyal supporters of the regime always vote. This group is currently divided into two sub-groups led by Saeed Jalili and Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, Iran’s former nuclear negotiator who represents the Supreme Leader in Iran’s National Security Council, and a former IRGC commander who’s now the speaker of the parliament. The two must tap into one broad base of conservative voters –and thus face a dilemma: both share the ‘loyalist’ vote and risk a run-off against Pezeshkian, or one can step aside for the other and hand him the bulk of the ‘loyal’ vote.

The Reformist camp, consistently pushed aside since the election of Mohammad Khatami in 1997, seeks a gradual ‘opening up’ of the system. They say Pezeshkian can implement better economic policies, restrict the morality police, relax censorship, and begin to normalize Iran's relationship with the West. The more radical reformists, however, criticize Pezeshkian for not emphasizing democratic values and instead expressing total obedience to the Supreme Leader at every turn. They warn that Pezeshkian is there only to save face for the regime and his team of conformists and bureaucrats would not move towards the more liberal demands of the Iranian public.

The Boycott camp is the largest of the three groups – 40 to 50 percent of eligible voters, according to semi-official polls. These argue that the president in the Islamic Republic of Iran is proven to be incapable of effecting meaningful change, therefore voting would only amount to partaking in a show that legitimizes a system of oppression. They favor popular mobilization and more radical tactics.

It is safe to say that the outcome of Iran’s 2024 presidential elections ultimately depends on the second group above to persuade the third to show up to keep out the first. It’s the well-known, some may say tired, narrative of bad versus worse. We’ll soon know if it has just enough appeal to work one more time.

The opinions expressed by the author are not necessarily the views of Iran International.

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