Iran’s Presidential Election: Opportunity or Dead End?

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Table of Contents

  1. Introduction
  2. Why Iran’s Reformists Refuse to Boycott Elections
  3. Why Boycotting Iran’s Rigged Presidential Elections Is Good for Democracy
  4. Iranian Economy: From Presidential Campaign Promises to Reality 

Introduction

Karim Sadjadpour is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where he focuses on Iran and U.S. foreign policy toward the Middle East.

Iranian citizens must decide this week whether to vote in the country’s highly engineered June 18 Presidential election. Of the seven candidates permitted to run by government gatekeepers, none have popular appeal. Hardline cleric Ebrahim Raisi, considered a potential successor to 81-year-old Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is widely perceived to be the frontrunner.

Many Iranians will refrain from voting, believing that doing so legitimizes an unfree and unfair election. Women’s rights activist Masih Alinejad is among those calling for a boycott, writing that “By not participating, we can send a message of hope that we do not want a religious dictatorship.” Yet, Columbia University professor Kian Tajbakhsh, a former political prisoner in Iran, explains why Iran’s reformist parties have refused to boycott the elections and why history shows us that “electoral boycotts in authoritarian settings generally don’t work.”  

The greatest concern for most Iranians is the country’s deteriorating economy. Considering Iran’s dismal economic reality—plagued by a combination of sanctions, mismanagement, corruption, and the Covid-19 pandemic—few Iranian citizens have hope that the lofty campaign promises of presidential candidates will be possible to fulfill. As Sarah Bazoobandi writes, “Current economic hardships affecting Iranians are therefore expected to continue, and possibly worsen, through the next president’s term in the office.”

Join the conversation on Twitter and Facebook, and share your own views and expectations for the upcoming Iranian elections. 

Why Iran’s Reformists Refuse to Boycott Elections

Kian Tajbakhsh is a Senior Advisor to the Executive Vice President for Global Centers at Columbia University. He is an international expert in local government reform, democracy, and human rights promotion. Tajbakhsh represented the Open Society Foundations in Iran until he was arrested during in 2009 Green Movement protests.

When the Islamic Republic of Iran’s gatekeepers barred all but seven of the nearly 600 candidates who sought to run in the country’s June 18 presidential elections, Iran’s beleaguered reformist movement faced a conundrum. Should they participate in an engineered election that barred them from competing, or call for a boycott? 

For many opponents of the regime, inside and outside of Iran, boycotting what they consider to be sham elections is the only logical response. Yet the consortium of reformists parties, jebhe-ye eslahat, decided not to call for a boycott. Instead, they announced that they would not endorse any candidate for the presidential ballot; some recommended that individuals refrain from voting but did not call for a formal boycott. 

The most interesting of these reformist politicians is Mostafa Tajzadeh,1 an outspoken senior aide to former President Mohammed Khatami who was himself barred from running. Tajzadeh declared in a tweet that the 2021 disqualifications were so blatant and egregious that the regime had passed the threshold from a hybrid theocratic/democratic regime in which elections were “engineered” to a fully despotic authoritarian regime where government officials are in effect appointed by the rulers. Elections were now “meaningless” not only because reform-minded candidates were disqualified, but because the entire process was arbitrary. 

Despite this, however, four main obstacles deterred reformists from calling for an official electoral boycott. First, Tajzadeh explained that if he could be confident that 10 million people would follow a call to spoil their ballots or write in dissident politicians, then he might have supported such a protest vote. As one of Iran’s most experienced politicians, Tajzadeh’s assessment tells us a great deal about Iranian politics, specifically that the extent of support for a radical democratic transformation, while broad, may not be as universal as some claim. Indeed he repeatedly reminded supporters that there are millions of Iranians who do not support free elections or political freedom. Western pundits may idealistically hope that most Iranians support Tajzadeh’s call for free and fair elections, but he himself does not feel confident popular will exists for a protest vote–let alone a formal boycott, which he rejects as a self-defeating strategy. 

The second reason was that support from other elites for a boycott was also unlikely. Gholamhossein Karbaschi, a prominent former Mayor of Tehran, founder of a popular reformist newspaper, and head of Iran’s most important technocratic party, rebuked Tajzadeh as a lone wolf who was out of touch with Iranian society and with the broad alliance of “reformist” parties. Karbaschi called Tajzadeh’s electoral platform demanding free, fair, and contested elections “unrealistic, counter-revolutionary, and anti-patriotic” and accused Tajzadeh of undermining the Islamic Republic by playing into the hands of the Western “enemy.” Even dissident journalists such as Ahmad Zeidabadi, a former political prisoner who contended there was nothing to be gained from electoral politics, have argued that democrats should focus instead on strengthening their social organizations, going so far as to claim that there is no harm in letting the military (IRGC) take over the government as they might get things done.

A third driving factor for reformist groups’ hesitancy to call for a boycott is that electoral boycotts in authoritarian settings generally do not work. With the exception of rare cases, of the 170 boycotts studied by political scientists over the last three decades, most of them failed to level the unfair electoral playing field, delegitimize the ruling regime’s fraudulent electoral practices in the eyes of the international community, or force the ruling regime to share power with democratic forces or to change. Boycotts work only if they are part of a broader political strategy targeting other sectors of the society and the economy as well as the entire spectrum of electoral contests. 

In the Iranian context, an electoral boycott would mean abstaining from all municipal elections. But reformists did not want to shut themselves out of the thousands of elected local councils that still have a limited but real potential role to play in the practice of self-government. These local elections will become increasingly important in the coming years as big cities become more important in the life of the nation. Therefore, reformists announced that they would endorse a list of candidates for Tehran’s city council and they will probably do so for other large cities as well, despite the arbitrary disqualifications of local candidates.

The fourth consideration is that to be effective, a boycott must include civil disobedience (e.g. peaceful street demonstrations) that is too risky inside the Islamic Republic. Given that peaceful protests in Iran have long been repressed with live ammunition, Tajzadeh is not willing to put the lives of young supporters in danger. 

Nonetheless, the clarity and concreteness of Tajzadeh’s platform as a would-be candidate in the election represent a new stage in the evolution of democratic discourse in the country. Tajzadeh’s 2021 electoral platform presented arguably the boldest and most coherent statement of liberal democratic reforms by any politician inside Iran since the revolution of 1979. The circumlocution around sensitive topics of political life that often mars the reformists’ message since they entered onto the political stage in the mid-1990s was finally absent. 

The structural reforms for which Tajzadeh called would render the Islamic Republic almost unrecognizable. Tajzadeh proposed that the position of the Supreme Leader be term limited, directly elected, and ultimately merged with the presidency; the Guardian Council should be stripped of its ability to disqualify candidates to political office; all international human rights norms should be respected, including freedom of conscience, speech, assembly, and religion; mandatory hijab should be eliminated; national media, TV, and radio should be removed from under state monopoly control and censorship; the military and IRGC should be banned from direct involvement in political and economic life; and last but not least, relations with the U.S. should be normalized. 

Declaring his bold demands in an open letter to the Supreme Leader, Tajzadeh called for a constituent assembly to revise the constitution. While all of this is standard fare for exiled political activists, this wish list was unprecedented coming from a longtime political insider residing in the Islamic Republic. 

Whether Tajzadeh’s political program will ever translate into practical political outcomes and wider popular support for the reformists is hard to predict. Today, the nezam appears consolidated and without serious rivals. Although aspirations to democratic and concrete reform have found their clearest expression in 40 years in his program, the power of this group supporting such changes is probably at the lowest it has ever been. Tajzadeh and several others were swiftly disqualified and sidelined without causing much observable consternation in the society at large. Whether the maturing of democratic political discourse is mere whistling in the wind or can have practical impact on the direction of the country will not become clear in the short term, but more likely over a period measured not in years but decades.

Iran’s upcoming presidential elections could have important implications for the country's political future as well as ongoing nuclear negotiations between Washington and Tehran. Sada asked three experts to analyze the challenges and concerns facing Iranian voters, and whether a new president is likely to meaningfully impact the country's political, economic, and social realities.

Why Boycotting Iran’s Rigged Presidential Elections Is Good for Democracy

Masih Alinejad is an Iranian journalist, author and women’s rights campaigner. She hosts “Tablet,” a talk show on Voice of America’s Persian service.

Once again, the Islamic Republic of Iran is holding a public relations exercise in which pre-selected candidates are paraded on television and the airwaves to compete in controlled presidential elections. Yet as Iranians are aware by now, real authority lies with the Supreme Leader and the regime’s shadowy and unelected bodies. This has inspired a grassroots electoral boycott campaign—#NotVotingForIR or Ray-bi-ray in Persian—throughout the country, which has received a massive boost from family members of political prisoners and protesters killed during four decades of Islamic governance. All are united in saying that they will not participate in rigged elections.

For more than two decades, power in the Islamic Republic has vacillated between the so-called moderate and conservative factions of the same party. Like elections in old East Germany or other Soviet satellites, only Iranian politicians who profess sufficient loyalty to Islamic Republic principles are allowed to run; hence they always win and opposers are not allowed to contest the vote. Insiders espousing even mildly reformist ideas were eliminated from the list of approved candidates.  

Given the arbitrary disqualification of even longtime regime insiders—such as former Speaker of Parliament Ali Larijani—no candidate has a credible, thought-out platform. There are only a few short weeks between approval from the Guardian Council and the election date, leaving candidates little time to create a set of policies. The system is designed to reinforce the message that candidates and elections do not matter. The real decisions are made elsewhere.  

Islamic Republic officials use electoral turnout as a legitimation of theocratic rule and Iranian citizens, especially government employees, who have no proof of voting on their ID cards face potential consequences. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has often boasted of how voters are not only picking a president but are also giving their backing to the regime. Similarly, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif evokes electoral turnout to defend Iran’s abysmal human rights record—including the highest execution rate per capita in the world—and dismiss reports of widespread public discontent.

Given the public pressure on Iranian citizens to vote, not voting is a dynamic act of protest. It is a denial of the puppet show put on by the regime. If the clerical leadership derives its legitimacy from electoral turnout, then a boycott will remove the facade of Islamic democracy, which is a contradiction in terms. Boycotting is the most peaceful form of protest against a dictatorship. It is a vote of no confidence in the current system, where people express their dissatisfaction by not voting. 

Over the last four decades the Islamic Republic has shown a fundamental inability to reform. It is theocracy where the highest authority is not the constitution but a Khomeinist interpretation of the Quran. 

Like many of my generation of who grew up in Iran, I once believed that the Islamic Republic could be reformed. In 1997, we helped elect moderate cleric Mohammed Khatami in a landslide, and reelected him again in 2001. Yet Khatami’s reform agenda was ruthlessly stymied by an unelected establishment—led by the Supreme Leader and backed by the Revolutionary Guards—that to this day maintains a monopoly of coercion. Rather than side with those who elected him, Khatami—like most reformist politicians—sided with those who repressed us. 

My faith in reform was further shattered after the fraudulent reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadienad in 2009, which caused millions of Iranians to take to the streets in protest, chanting “Where is my vote?” The regime responded with a violent crackdown that led to the imprisonment of thousands and the killing of more than 100 peaceful protesters. I interviewed the families of 57 protesters who were killed in these protests. From that point on, I decided that participation in Iran’s fraudulent elections would be a betrayal of peaceful protesters killed in 2009.

After Hassan Rouhani was elected in 2013, he promised to repeal legislation that bans Iranian women from entering stadiums, withdraw the morality police from the streets, and allow greater personal freedoms to young people. He also promised to free the political prisoners and allow Iranians living abroad to return home without fear. Not one of his promises materialized. Rouhani’s vice president in charge of women’s issues, Shahindokht Mollaverdi, said that since the clerics in the holy city of Qom were against women’s entering stadiums, the government was not going to follow up on its promises.  Similarly, the morality police were actually increased and the Supreme Leader declared that compulsory hijab was a red line for the regime. 

Since then, Iran has witnessed two more nationwide protests that were brutally put down. The biggest protests in the history of the Islamic Republic took place in November 2019, in which people turned out in their thousands in more than 100 cities. The security forces resorted to firing live bullets into crowds and allegedly killing more than 1,500 people, according to a Reuters investigation. To date, Rouhani’s government has not declared an official figure.

As a woman, I find the idea of participating in this largely misogynistic regime’s elections even more scandalous. I don’t have the right to choose what I can wear, ride a bicycle, get the custody of my child, enter a stadium, get a passport without my husband’s permission, but sadly, I have been given the right to vote in a political system that perpetuates these limitations on me. This is tantamount to being a slave who is bereft of all her rights, but the right to vote
for those who enslave you. In other words, voting in this regime’s elections as a woman is against their dignity. Millions of Iranian women think the same.

The presidential elections are a referendum on the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic. By not participating, we can send a message of hope that we do not want a religious dictatorship. 

Iran’s upcoming presidential elections could have important implications for the country's political future as well as ongoing nuclear negotiations between Washington and Tehran. Sada asked three experts to analyze the challenges and concerns facing Iranian voters, and whether a new president is likely to meaningfully impact the country's political, economic, and social realities.

A New President Won’t Change Iran’s Bleak Economic Reality

Sara Bazoobandi is a Marie Curie Fellow at the German Institute for Global and Area Studies in Hamburg. She is a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. Her research focus is political economy of the Middle East, particularly Iran. Follow her on Twitter: @EastRisk

Candidates in Iran’s June 18 presidential election have presented various plans to get the country out of its current economic decline. Crippled under U.S. sanctions, the consequences of fiscal and monetary policies, corruption, and more recently the Covid-19 pandemic, Iran’s economic woes have affected the livelihood of average citizens and deepened the rift between them and the regime. The next president will be expected to provide policy responses that not only slow down economic decline, but also offer some solution to the ongoing economic crisis caused by slow growth, high inflation, widespread poverty and high unemployment.

Campaign Promises

Candidates began campaigning immediately after the results of the vetting process were published by the Guardian Council. Unsurprisingly, improving economic conditions is at the center of each candidate’s plan.

Three common themes appear in the plans of all seven candidates: lowering inflation; improving welfare and social justice through policies such as fighting corruption, creating jobs, narrowing the social gap, and providing affordable food, housing and healthcare; and supporting the increase of production and efficiency through policies related to privatization, transparency, coordination of policies, and government investments. 

The campaign of Ebrahim Raisi, who current heads the judiciary, includes three specific and rather ambitious goals: creating one million jobs, lowering inflation to single digits, and reducing healthcare costs by 50 percent during the first term of his presidency. He also promised that his government will be devoted to prioritizing and supporting production, increasing transparency, and improving economic coordination among various elements of the government. 

Said Jalili, Iran’s former chief nuclear negotiator, used similar rhetoric to that of the former president Ahmadinejad by promising to introduce a new program that aims to allow people to manage their own share of hydrocarbon resources. He also indicated specific plans for providing affordable food, building 4 million residential units for the poor and underprivileged, and providing government-sponsored holiday destinations inside the country to young couples and families. Moreover, like Raisi, he talked about his government’s commitment to end corruption. Regarding the country’s relationship with the West, he promised to end Iran’s vulnerability to “economic pressure of the enemies.” 

Mohsen Rezai, former Revolutionary Guards commander, promised to increase targeted subsidies and cash handouts, control inflation, and increase industrial production. Rezai also indicated that he wants to create an oil fund that would support government investments and help establish inter-generational savings accounts for citizens. 

The core promises of Abdulnaser Hemmati, the current head of Central Bank of Iran, are to improve citizen welfare and resolve the crisis over the ratification of two remaining bills that complete Iran’s action plan with the Financial Action Task Force (FATF). 

The principal promise of the campaign of Mohsen Mehralizadeh, former governor of Isfahan and former deputy head of Iran’s Atomic Agency, is to facilitate mass privatization in order to reduce the government’s role from nearly 67 percent of all economic activities to 20-25 percent. 

Amirhossein Ghazizadeh Hashemi, a conservative candidate and former member of parliament, has similarly promised to lower inflation to an ambitious rate of below 5 percent and tackle the issue of inequality.

Although one of the key factors that have contributed to Iran’s economic deterioration is U.S. sanctions that limit Iran’s economic relations with the rest of the world, most of the candidates fail to provide any clear solution to that problem. Hemmati and Jalili are the only candidates that articulate some views on this issue. While Jalili spoke about the eradication of Iran’s vulnerability to economic pressure imposed by the country’s enemies, Hemmati promised to end the ongoing internal dispute over ratification of the FATF bills that would get Iran off the FATF blacklist and allow international banking transactions. Such a step would still not remove all obstacles, however, due to U.S. secondary sanctions on the country’s financial institutions. Raisi, who is favored by the Supreme Leader and seen as the frontrunner, has neither presented a plan for ending the sanctions nor has he expressed the intention to increase resistance as did Jalili. It is expected that the strategy of his government, should he win, would depend on the results of the Iran-U.S. talks going on currently.

Feasibility of Campaign Promises

Inflation

Lowering inflation, as promised by several candidates, will be extremely difficult. At the end of April, the inflation rate was about 50 percent, the highest it has been in the last three years. The year-on-year inflation rate for food items increased to 65 percent and more than 60 percent of the population is living in poverty. Increased inflation is partly due to the government’s expanding budget deficit. As the government’s revenue from hydrocarbon resources export declined, the government lowered the value of the riyal and borrowed from the central bank to increase the country’s money supply. In the last fiscal year alone (March 2020-March 2021), the central bank increased Iran’s money supply by 40 percent. Therefore, controlling inflation would require a decrease in the amount of money circulating in the economy, which would directly depend on the next government’s budgets. A further rise in the budget deficit will undoubtedly be a major obstacle to any attempt at lowering the inflation.

Welfare and social justice

All of the campaign promises that are aimed at improving welfare and social justice will require a significant increase in government expenditure. Creating jobs in the government sector, providing social services such as affordable housing and healthcare, and increasing targeted subsidies and cash handouts will undoubtedly impose further pressure on the budget and enlarge the deficit. Unless the next government finds sustainable solutions to finance its expenditures (such as exporting hydrocarbon products), such promises will either not be delivered or further increase inflation. 

Supporting the increase of production

Non-oil industries in Iran are characterised by low efficiency and outdated technology, making them unable to compete with global competitors. Moreover, the country’s agriculture sector is under grave pressure due to depleting water resources. In the next four years, the oil industry will be the only viable sector for growth, but that sector depends on the future of negotiations between Iran and the six global powers over returning to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). 

Considering the current economic environment in Iran, influenced by a combination of sanctions, fiscal and monetary policies, corruption, and the Covid-19 pandemic, the campaign promises of all the candidates will be extremely tough to fulfil. Most candidates are promising measures to improve the livelihood of the citizens through higher government expenditure, which will increase the budget deficit. With the exception of one candidate, Hemmati, none of the candidates has any tangible plan for improving Iran’s economic relations with the rest of the world through diplomatic negotiations. This may well be due to the fact that all the candidates are confident that ongoing negotiations under Rouhani’s administration will bring results. Current economic hardships affecting Iranians are therefore expected to continue, and possibly worsen, through the next president’s term in the office. 

Note

1 Author shared an Evin prison cell with Tajzadeh for over four months after the 2009 Green movement protests.





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