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Iran’s Presidential Elections: A Litmus Test and a Legitimacy Crisis

The Islamic Republic of Iran is gearing up to hold another controversial election on June 18th, but this one is characterized by expectations of a historically low turnout, even according to local sources. The Guardian Council, a 12-member panel tasked with vetting candidates, only approved seven candidates out of the nearly six hundred who had registered to run. Notably, the Council barred from participation not only prominent reformists like Mostafa Tajzadeh and Eshaq Jahangiri (Rouhani’s Senior Vice President), but also pragmatic conservatives like Ali Larijani and populists like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Out of the seven approved candidates, Ebrahim Raisi, the current head of the judiciary system, is widely expected to win. Raisi, who played a major role in the execution of thousands of political prisoners in 1988, seems to have been handpicked to rule by Khamenei.

Despite a widespread and enduring lack of confidence in the polls, the Islamic Republic has historically taken voter participation very seriously. One of the most prominent examples is the 2013 presidential election that brought President Hassan Rouhani to power. At the time, even though there existed widespread polarization amongst Iranians due to the fraudulent elections of the 2009 Green Movement, Khamenei pleaded with the nation to participate in the elections irrespective of whether they liked the Islamic Republic or not, and even permitted the relatively moderate Rouhani to participate.

Since 2013, however, circumstances have drastically changed. While electoral legitimacy through participation had previously been important for the Islamic Republic, it is no longer one of its core priorities. Rather, its focus has shifted to ensuring regime survival via repression and greater electoral manipulation, which it hopes will allow for a smooth transition to an ultraconservative Supreme Leader after the death of the ailing Khamenei.

An Election Marred by Talks of Boycott

The Islamic Republic of Iran is in the throes of multiple crises. While its economy has taken a direct hit from a toxic mixture of acute American sanctions, domestic corruption, and economic mismanagement, the successive waves of bloody anti-regime demonstrations throughout Rouhani’s reign have dented the minimal electoral legitimacy that the Islamic Republic had previously forged among its populace. As the calls to boycott the upcoming election have grown, a recent poll suggested that voter apathy could reach as high as 78%. Some analysts also ask whether Khamenei would resort to ordering the ballot boxes stuffed to create a narrative of higher turnout and project a semblance of legitimacy to the world.

Significantly, the higher echelons of power such as the Supreme Leader and the Guardian Council seem to have decided, against the backdrop of inevitable voter apathy, to disregard “legitimacy” and focus instead on regime survival. To this end, Khamenei and the Guardian Council appear to have decided to weaken the reformist camp by blocking high-profile reformists such as Mustafa Tajzadeh from standing for election.

The outrage at the Guardian Council’s arbitrary restriction of candidates is a frank reminder that elections in the Islamic Republic of Iran have never been fair. Iran’s unelected bodies like the Guardian Council wield the real power by vetting candidates on the basis of their Islamic credentials and allegiance to the Islamic Revolution. At times, small windows of opportunity have been presented to allow high-ranking reformists to run for elections and make tantalizing promises to draw Iranians to the ballots. However, years of accumulated frustration of Iranians by the limited power of elected officials, along with widespread disillusionment towards the reformists themselves, has spurred many Iranians not only to stay away from the ballot box but also to reject the regime in its entirety.

If You Can’t Join Them, Beat Them

Officials in the Islamic Republic are aware of the growing disillusionment of the populace with both the reformist and hardline factions of the regime. This disenchantment came to the fore as a result of ground-breaking upheavals that took place during the Rouhani presidency, especially during the 2017 and 2019 protests. The latter saw the killing of more than 1500 protesters, according to a detailed report by Reuters. These protests were unique in that they occurred nationwide, even in the conservative heartlands commonly regarded as bastions of the regime, and the slogans chanted targeted all factions of the regime, much to the chagrin of Iran’s conservative and reformist rulers. Following this came the Revolutionary Guards’ intentional shootdown of a Ukrainian Airlines plane, killing all the passengers and crew. Furthermore, the country’s disastrous mismanagement of the coronavirus pandemic, followed by the Supreme Leader’s refusal to import European vaccines, further soured relations between the state and society.

At this stage, Iranian authorities have abandoned — temporarily or otherwise — the objective of co-opting the population. As a rational actor bent on staying in power and ensuring the survival of the regime, but having lost the “hearts and minds” of a huge segment of his constituents, Khamenei is carefully picking his battles. These battles include ensuring a smooth transition once he can no longer serve as the supreme leader, as well as engaging in limited negotiations with the United States and Europe in order to lift the Trump-era sanctions on Iran. Crucially, neither of these objectives requires any veneer of electoral legitimacy; the United States is just as willing to engage with a dictatorship as it is with a guided democracy.  However, the ongoing economic sanctions could set the stage for more unrest in the country, as masses of people have lost faith in the system. Given that the regime is not counting on electoral legitimacy, popular anger will undoubtedly translate into violence and unrest, and large-scale repression looms large on the horizon.

Iran’s leaders are aware of the exacerbated unrest — and aware that its responsibility lies with them. A hardline president bent on extracting more gains from an American administration eager to negotiate could try to improve the image of the regime, although this could be a formidable task. Despite the urgency of lifting sanctions, however, Iran’s hardliners are defined by their opposition to engagement with America. Raisi has indicated on multiple occasions his aversion to negotiations; to the extent that his administration is willing to negotiate, it will probably be for the purpose of testing the waters and gauging the extent of the concessions they can achieve from the Americans without making concessions of their own.

Among all of this instability, one thing is certain: Iran’s new president will face an increasingly disgruntled society, along with the possibility of further unrest because of the lack of freedoms and the negative impacts of the economic mismanagement. The handling of the election and its fallout will be a litmus test for the Islamic Republic to see how it can reign without the pretense of legitimacy.

Vahid Yücesoy is a PhD candidate in Political Science/International Relations at Université de Montréal, Canada. He is a specialist of Iranian and Turkish politics and political economy.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.

Vahid Yücesoy is PhD candidate in political science/international relations at Université de Montréal, Canada. He’s a specialist of Iranian and Turkish politics and political economy. His analyses have been published in various news outlets including Radio-Canada, La Presse, Le Devoir, Al-Jazeera English, World Politics Review, L’Orient le Jour, Al-Monitor, and Radio-Zamaneh. He speaks French, English, Turkish, Persian, and intermediary Kurdish.

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