Iranians to vote in tightly controlled election following president’s death in helicopter crash

Iranians to vote in tightly controlled election following president’s death in helicopter crash
  • PublishedJune 28, 2024

Iranians will vote in a snap presidential election today, just over five weeks after former president Ebrahim Raisi died in a helicopter crash.

Mr Raisi, who served as Iran’s president since 2021, was killed on May 19 when a helicopter carrying him and other officials crashed in a mountainous part of the country during poor weather.

He was widely expected to run for re-election next year and was touted as a potential successor to Iran’s supreme leader, 85-year-old Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Now voters will head to the polls a year early, ushering in new leadership at a time when the Iranian regime faces deteriorating domestic support and rising regional turmoil.

“This is unprecedented in Iran’s recent history,” the University of Melbourne’s Dr Dara Conduit told the ABC.

“Normally, Iranian presidents would serve their full terms as president … [and they] tend to serve two terms in office as well, so it may have been assumed that [Mr Raisi] would continue to serve for another five or so years afterwards.”

Two hands pray in front of the picture of the late Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, who is wearing a turban and glasses.
Ebrahim Raisi, who served as Iran’s president since 2021, was killed in May when a helicopter carrying him and other officials crashed in a mountainous part of Iran.(Reuters: Willy Kurniawan)

The special presidential election falls within Iran’s constitutionally mandated 50-day period in which a new president must be elected.

More than 61 million Iranians are eligible to cast a ballot in the compulsory poll and the results could be known within days.

The power of the supreme leader

Ayatollah Khamenei and his hardline Guardian Council have tightly controlled the process.

Only five candidates from more than 80 hopefuls survived screening by the Guardian Council, a panel of clerics and jurists which is overseen by Ayatollah Khamenei.

Four of those are hardliners — including ​​Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, the parliament speaker and former head of the powerful Revolutionary Guards, and Saeed Jalili, a former nuclear negotiator — while one is a low-profile moderate candidate, Masoud Pezeshkian, who is the sole reformist in the race.

One candidate, Amirhossein Ghazizadeh Hashemi, withdrew from the running on Wednesday, leaving what many analysts view as a three-way contest between Mr Qalibaf, Mr Jalili, and Mr Pezeshkian.

Among the disqualified were seven women, as well as a number of government officials, ministers and politicians.

Regardless of the outcome, Dr Conduit says the president is unlikely to have a significant influence on how Iran conducts itself on the global stage.

Although the president typically runs the government day-to-day and has a particular responsibility for the nation’s struggling economy, they ultimately answer to the supreme leader, who has the final say in all matters of state.

“All of the really important policy domains for Iran — so foreign policy, what’s happening in Gaza, what’s happening in Yemen, Syria — is ultimately determined by the supreme leader, not by the president that will be elected,” said Dr Conduit, who specialises in authoritarianism in the Middle East.

Woman smiling in glasses and black top
Dara Conduit says she doesn’t expect the election outcome to influence the amount of power Iran’s supreme leader has over major decisions.(Supplied: Dara Conduit)

More significant than the election result is how the outcome might influence the choice of the supreme leader’s successor.

The sudden death of Mr Raisi, who many viewed as being next in line for the position, sparked a race among hardliners seeking to gain influence in the selection of Iran’s next top leader.

Ayatollah Khamenei, meanwhile, wants a fiercely loyal president he can trust, according to analysts.

An Iranian insider close to Ayatollah Khamenei, who asked for anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter, told Reuters the supreme leader “has no tolerance for political infighting”.

“A president who is loyal and aligns completely with the supreme leader while also a trusted ally of the Revolutionary Guards, can significantly contribute to a seamless transition of power,” the insider said.

Anger and discontent

The poll comes at a volatile time for the Iranian regime.

Amid growing discontent with the nation’s leadership, it is the first presidential election since violent protests erupted in 2022 following the death of Mahsa Amini.

Ms Amini was a young Kurdish woman who died in police custody after being arrested for allegedly violating rules requiring women to wear a headscarf.

Her death set off a shock wave of anger and outrage that rippled around the world.

A UN fact-finding mission found security forces employed “disproportionate use of lethal force” against Iranian protesters, many of whom demanded a regime change.

A bearded man in a turban and glasses speaks into a microphone in front of the Iranian flag.
Many believe the newly elected president will have a strong influence in deciding the successor to Iran’s supreme leader, 85-year-old Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.(Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader/WANA)

More than 500 people were killed in the crackdown, according to rights groups.

“Those protests were probably the most significant popular uprising that the Iranian regime has ever faced — and the regime’s brutal response led to a massive deterioration of its legitimacy in the view of lots of Iranians,” Dr Conduit said.

“So this election is the first major opportunity to vote for a president in the aftermath of that.”

While devout supporters of the clerical establishment are expected to vote for hardliners, many Iranians may choose to abstain due to discontent over crackdowns on dissent, limited electoral options, and anger over worsening living standards.

Iranian dissidents, both domestically and abroad, have called for an election boycott, pushing the hashtag #ElectionCircus widely on social media platform X.

Many argue that a high turnout would legitimise the Islamic Republic, an institution in which many Iranians have lost faith.

“The electoral process in Iran has deteriorated significantly in the last 15 years, and the legitimacy of the regime has really declined,” Dr Conduit said.

“This election has an opportunity to … create the sense that it [the government] is listening to its citizens more than it has been in recent years.

“But whether it does or not, that’s up to the regime. Only time will tell.”


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