Iran’s Reformist Pezeshkian Nears Win in Runoff Election

(Bloomberg) -- Iran’s only reformist presidential candidate Masoud Pezeshkian widened his lead in the country’s runoff election against his staunchly anti-Western rival Saeed Jalili, according to the latest results broadcast on Iranian state television.

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Pezeshkian had gained 12,704,910 votes, surpassing Jalili by more than 2.2 million votes, with more than two-thirds of the ballots counted. The results so far signal that Pezeshkian is poised to become Iran’s next president, following his strong performance in the first round where he led in votes but didn’t reach the necessary 50% mark for a clear victory.

Local media had been widely speculating that Pezeshkian was on track for a certain victory shortly after the polls were closed at midnight local time. Polls were extended as state-run television broadcast long queues of voters inside polling stations well past midnight. The two men cast their votes around mid-morning in working-class neighborhoods on the outskirts of Tehran.

Voter turnout is projected to reach 50%, with the winner expected to be declared before midday local time, according to Mohsen Eslami, a spokesman for the election headquarters. The turnout would represent a marked increase from the first round, which saw voter participation plummet to a historic low.

In a closely contested vote on June 28, Pezeshkian gained 10.4 million votes, amounting to roughly 42% of the ballots. Jalili, the second-place candidate, trailed with nearly a million fewer votes.

Pezeshkian, a 69-year-old lawmaker and heart surgeon by training, and 58-year-old Jalili, an ex-chief negotiator on the nuclear program, are battling to take over from the government of late President Ebrahim Raisi, whose death in a helicopter crash in May triggered the snap election.

The rivals spent the past four days campaigning across the Islamic Republic, trying to rally support from an electorate that mostly shunned the ballot box in last week’s first round. They’ve clashed in televised debates over the future of the now-defunct nuclear deal, internet censorship and how to revive the struggling economy.

The election comes at a time of unprecedented opposition to Iran’s ruling clerical establishment and as turmoil and conflict dominate the Middle East.

Tension between Iran and Israel has escalated since Israel started an ongoing military assault on Gaza — a response to the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas, which is backed by Tehran and considered a terrorist organization by the US. The two countries traded direct fire in April, though stopped short of a full-blown war.

‘Coin Flip’

The record-low turnout of about 40% in last Friday’s vote highlighted the crisis of legitimacy that’s been facing the Islamic Republic and its ultimate ruler, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Widespread demonstrations and a violent uprising in 2022 have rattled the ruling clerics and empowered security forces to suppress dissent as much as possible.

Underscoring the extent to which those protests still loom large for many voters, several families of those killed by Iranian security forces in the unrest have used social media to publicly boycott the election, including the father or Mahsa Amini, the 22-year-old Kurdish-Iranian woman whose death in police custody sparked the uprising.

“Regardless of who wins the runoff, it is clear that the majority of Iranians have little faith in the governing system,” Gregory Brew, Iran analyst at the Eurasia Group, said in a note.

The vote is “essentially a coin flip, as both contenders have a plausible route to victory,” Brew said, adding that data from the first round shows Pezeshkian gained a healthy number of votes in rural areas which normally back more conservative candidates.

The two candidates who missed out on the runoff, both hard liners, urged their supporters to back Jalili in the second round.

That means Pezeshkian had to persuade the deeply disillusioned majority who chose not to vote last week to pledge their support for him to ensure a reformist victor.

Hard Liners

But there are signs the conservative and hard line political factions are divided over who to back.

Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, the current speaker of parliament and former Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps commander who came third in last week’s first round, told his supporters to back Jalili. Yet on Tuesday, several newspapers in Iran speculated his supporters are split — with a fair number more likely to back Pezeshkian out of fear that Jalili’s policies would be bad for the economy and further isolate Iran.

Khamenei hasn’t publicly endorsed either candidate but in a speech last week he advised voters to steer clear of those who believe the country would be better off by engaging with the US.

That was broadly interpreted by the Iranian media as a criticism of Pezeshkian, who wants to revive the deal with world powers over Iran’s atomic activities — which would enable relief from sanctions — and has emphasized the need for the country to be run by qualified experts rather than men like Jalili, who are more driven by religion and ideology.

Whoever wins, they may have to deal with the return of Donald Trump as US president after November’s elections. Trump’s foreign policy during his initial 2017-2021 term was defined by a hostile “maximum pressure” strategy against Iran that destabilized the Persian Gulf, rattled oil markets and almost triggered a direct war with the Islamic Republic.

It was Trump who walked away from the nuclear deal agreed to by his predecessor, Barack Obama.

--With assistance from Chris Miller.

(Updates voting tally in the second paragraph)

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