This article breaks down five key takeaways from the February 2024 survey conducted by Stasis Consulting ahead of Iran’s March 1 parliamentary elections. For a more detailed look at the results of the poll, please see this piece on the Middle East Institute website or find the full results from Stasis here.

1. Turnout continues to decline amid rising voter apathy.

Arash Ghafouri: This could be the first post-1979 election in which voter turnout declines below 40%. While this is just one poll forecast, all evidence suggests that the participation rate in the 2024 parliamentary election will be even lower than it was in 2020, which was around 43%. However, after several uprisings in the past few years — including 2019, 2021, and especially the “Woman, Life, Freedom” movement in late 2022 and 2023 — Iranians are very dissatisfied with the regime’s performance. One of the most surprising findings from this survey is that, for the first time since I started conducting polls on Iranian elections, respondents without a college education said they were less likely to participate (31%) than those who hold a college degree (40%). Keep in mind that the former comprise more than 70% of the adult population. Reports from many sources, including government officials, note that the popular uprisings in the past several years engaged many marginalized groups in the country, including those without access to a college education.

Alex Vatanka: The low turnout is hardly surprising. Even regime-controlled media inside Iran have been predicting this scenario for months now. For years, the autocratic Islamic Republic could claim a small degree of legitimacy by pointing to the existence of a so-called “reformist” faction within the regime. Where they were allowed to contest elections, reformists won the public vote, as in 1997 and 2013 with the victories of Mohammad Khatami and Hassan Rouhani. But Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, aged 84, no longer takes any chances. He is focused on consolidating control in the hands of the very few hardline loyalists whom he wants in positions of power when he eventually dies. The Iranian people can see through this mockery and refuse to play Khamenei’s cynical game.

2. President Ebrahim Raisi’s low approval rating limits his chances to become the next supreme leader.

Arash Ghafouri: President Raisi’s approval rating is low (32%), and for someone who is, to some extent at least, pursuing the position of supreme leader, this disapproval is a real obstacle. Moreover, Iranians have little confidence in President Raisi’s ability to solve the issues that matter to them. According to a survey Stasis conducted in 2021, only 20% of respondents believed Raisi was totally capable of solving the issues that Iranian people face. With these numbers, it is highly unlikely, though not impossible, that Mr. Raisi would be successful in a bid to become supreme leader.

Alex Vatanka: Public perceptions in Iran about Raisi are deeply negative for two main reasons. First, he was hand-picked in 2021 to become president in an entirely fraudulent vote. He has no popular base in society other than representing Khamenei’s wishes. The 63-year-old has spent his entire adult life acting as a yes-man for regime elders, most notably Khamenei. Second, under his presidency, the Iranian public has seen the economy decline even further and Iran’s international isolation become even deeper. To date, President Raisi has not once deviated from Khamenei’s wishes, be it on the issue of how to deal with the US, the nuclear standoff, or any of the other major strategic challenges Iran is facing. That said, this obedience might very well be Raisi’s best bet to succeed Khamenei as the next supreme leader, even though it is impossible to predict the outcome of the succession process.

3. Javad Zarif’s loss to Raisi in a hypothetical vote highlights that the reformist camp is a spent force.

Arash Ghafouri: Regarding the reformist camp, approval for their ideas among Iranian citizens has never climbed higher than 11% since we started polling on this question in 2019. Their main problem lately seems to be that those who identify as reformist, or assert that they would vote reformist if at all, are not likely to vote in elections. In this survey, respondents were asked to identify which political figures they would entrust with their vote if they were to hypothetically endorse a list of candidates. Options included: Mr. Khatami (former president), Mr. Rouhani (former president), Mr. Raisi (current president), or Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf (current speaker of the parliament). The results show that regardless of whether respondents are considered likely voters, 18% would choose candidates endorsed by President Raisi, followed by 12% who would follow former President Khatami’s endorsement. However, if we filter these responses to only consider likely voters, Mr. Raisi’s influence reaches 31% as opposed to Mr. Khatami, whose numbers decline to just 9%. Former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad stands out among the rest, even compared with President Raisi, in terms of his political influence. Mr. Ahmadinejad has been the most favorable political figure in Iran since 2020, according to our surveys.

Alex Vatanka: The reformist faction’s heyday was in the 1997-2003 period, when the regime allowed their candidates to run in and win elections since they are the public’s preferred option. But two realities have changed, and the Islamic Republic can no longer claim the duality of “reformists” versus “hardliners” inside the ranks of the regime. First, because they failed to deliver once in office, the public today views reformist politicians as Khamenei’s useful idiots. The best recent example of this is former President Rouhani: He promised lots of change but delivered very little during his eight years in office. During the election season, reformists are given some space to articulate their views in the media and criticize the regime (but never Khamenei himself) in Khamenei’s effort to create some excitement among the public. However, this is an old tactic that no longer works. As president (2005-13), Ahmadinejad was hugely damaging to Iran, but he came closest among recent presidents to openly confronting Khamenei. That is why he still has some popular support in Iran. Reformists like former Foreign Minister Javad Zarif never openly confronted Khamenei the same way, and the Iranian public has not forgiven them for it.

4. Young Iranians are deeply pessimistic about the current political situation and their future prospects.

Arash Ghafouri: There is a discernable gap between Iranian youth aged 18-29 and other age groups, especially those aged 60 and up. Young Iranians are less likely to vote (24% as opposed to 34% of the whole population) and more likely to disapprove of the job performance of both the president (73% vs. 65%) and the parliament (66% vs. 61%).

Alex Vatanka: The young in Iran are not only incredibly angry and disillusioned but they have increasingly less to lose in a society where jobs are scarce, corruption is rife, the economy only delivers for those with political connections, and the ruling elite espouses social and cultural policies that are hugely out of touch with regular Iranians. These realities are only likely to get worse. This political setup, controlled by Khamenei and his armed protectors in the Revolutionary Guards, either refuses to compromise with young Iranians or simply does not know how to do so. A decade ago, political mobilization on the street was mostly restricted to the educated middle class in the larger cities. Today, deep anger can be detected across the social spectrum and throughout the country, but it seems particularly intense among the young, who have potentially so much to gain by confronting the leadership of the Islamist order.  

5. The economy remains the number one issue for Iranians, and many are voting with their feet.

Arash Ghafouri: Not surprisingly, the economy and unemployment are considered to be the most important issues facing the country, not just in this poll but in every poll that I have conducted since 2013. In this survey, most respondents said they are pessimistic about the future prosperity of the nation’s youth (76%), and most Iranians believe that young people would rather emigrate than stay in the country (68%). Respondents aged 18-29 are even more concerned about the future economic prospects for Iranian youth (82%) and more likely to believe young people want to emigrate rather than stay in Iran (77%). Moreover, Iranians overwhelmingly believe that officials do not care about solving the issues that matter to Iranian youth (70%).

Alex Vatanka: In the last four decades, Iran has experienced one of the highest rates of brain-drain in the world. For the longest time, officials in Tehran ignored and at times even encouraged emigration by the elite. But the economic costs of this are staggering. Today, Iran is behind neighbors like Turkey and the Gulf States in attracting educated talent. This reality clearly hurts Iranian nationalist sensibilities as much as it hampers Iran’s economic growth. The repressive political system that tolerates little dissent has always been a driver behind emigration across social classes. But the recent widening of the gap between Iran and other economies — thanks also to sanctions — has made emigration doubly attractive. This is also evident in this survey. And yet, there is simply no sign that the leaders in Tehran have any substantial vision to reverse this negative trend.


Arash Ghafouri is the CEO of Stasis Consulting.

Alex Vatanka is the director of the Iran Program at the Middle East Institute and a Senior Fellow with MEI’s Black Sea Program.

Photo by HOSSEIN BERIS/Middle East Images/AFP via Getty Images

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