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Iran’s Youth Key to Elections

Which Iranian presidential candidate will capture the urban and youth votes?
EDITORS' NOTE: Reuters and other foreign media are subject to Iranian restrictions on leaving the office to report, film or take pictures in Tehran.
Two Iranian women talk at a corner of a square in northern Tehran February 26, 2012. Picture taken on February 26, 2012. REUTERS/Morteza Nikoubazl (IRAN - Tags: SOCIETY) - RTR2YMKO

Experts agree that Iran has witnessed a socio-economic transformation in the past two decades. This transformation is not just seen in simple quantitative aspects (such as population growth and urbanization), but also some structural and value-based realities that will have an impact on the future of Iranian society. Some of the value shifts will have an impact on the voting behavior as well as expectations of the next government.

In the upcoming election on June 14, some 50.5 million Iranians will be eligible to vote. While the number of eligible voters increases, the composition of the electorate is also shifting as a result of demographic and other socio-economic trends. For example, based on the census data from October 2011 (the latest census in Iran), it can be estimated that the age group of 18 to 35 will make up about 50% of the electorate. In other words, the candidates that can attract the younger groups will be in a better position to score results. It is therefore no coincidence that some of the candidates are focusing on the younger generation and their concerns, such as job creation and cultural freedoms.

There are other trends that will influence voter behavior on June 14. Some of the key trends based on the data disseminated by the Statistical Center of Iran include:

  • As a result of demographic and economic developments, the family size is shrinking. An average Iranian family consisted of more than five members in 1976, but has less than two children today (with an average of 3.6 people in one family). This means that Iranian families have a more modern outlook in terms of economic and social values. Interestingly, the average family has also not responded very positively to government incentives for having more children.
  • Iran is now a solidly urban society (at 70% urbanization), with the majority of the population having been born and brought up in large cities. This segment of the population is also more concerned about issues such as urban management, transportation, the environment and pollution.
  • In a new phenomenon, 33% of women between the ages of 20 and 34 and 50% of the men in the same age group are unmarried and living single. This is seven percent of Iranian society and a significant segment (about 25%) of the active population. It is fair to argue that this segment would not feel represented by very traditional and religious values, though it may be difficult to find anyone among the existing candidates who could attract this segment of the population.
  • There are 2.5 million families (or 12.1% of all families in the country) where a woman is the main breadwinner of the family. This number has gone up from 9.5%, increasing by 900,000 families in the last decade. Divorce, a husband’s death and single-woman households are the main reasons for the growth of this category. The emergence of a large number of single-woman households has also reduced the average age of women providing for families. It is clear that a growing number of women would push for greater equality and an end to discrimination against women in politics and society.
  • There is an alarming trend in divorce. Nationwide, one out of seven marriages ends up in divorce. There is a much higher percentage of divorce in larger cities, especially Tehran, apparently mainly due to economic problems.

The above trends will have multiple impacts on the presidential elections and the future government: First off, these trends will influence voting behavior. It is clear that a growing number of the urban and younger generations would reject the traditional attitudes of a candidate such as Saeed Jalili, who has stated that the best role for women is to stay home and look after the family. Furthermore, the future president will be pulled in different directions by a society that is becoming more modern and a conservative establishment that views many of these trends as threats to Iran’s religious and traditional identity. Last year, even Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei reacted to these findings and called on the officials to draft and implement policies that would lead to a massive population growth in the country. 

However, census data indicates that government incentives (such as Ahmadinejad’s policy of paying a bonus for each new-born child) have not worked. It is evident that the actual behavior of Iranian families, especially urban families, is mainly driven by the bigger socio-economic picture and their concerns about the country’s future. As such, the electorate will pay more attention to the ability and track record of the candidates to manage the country’s socio-economic challenges. Furthermore, the success of the next president to return the country’s economy to some degree of normalcy and to generate optimism about the future will have a greater impact on the behavior patterns of Iranian families compared to government instructions to have more children. Improved economic conditions may also reverse the trends in phenomena such as divorce rates.

There is no doubt that the socio-economic developments of the past decade have had an impact on the value system in Iranian society. It is evident from the statistics that the average Iranian is moving away from the traditional Islamic values. This apparent disenchantment that has been affecting Iranian society since the 1979 Islamic Revolution is a central theme among large segments of the urban population, and it can be argued that this very same phenomenon fed the Green Movement in the 2009 post-election developments. 

It remains to be seen how this value shift will show itself on election day. The result may be that a growing number of urban and young Iranians will stay away from the polls, registering their protest by boycotting the elections. There are also some who believe that the population is aware of the fact that it has a choice within a limited field of candidates and that it is better to opt for those candidates who are more likely to understand the needs and expectations of the modern segments of Iranian society.

Bijan Khajehpour is a managing partner at Atieh International, the Vienna-based international arm of the Atieh Group of Companies, a group of strategic consulting firms based in Tehran, Iran.