Having failed to shape the society to its liking, can the Islamic Republic adapt to a society that is increasingly demanding separation between religion and state?
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On June 19, Ebrahim Raisi was announced the winner of Iran’s presidential election. Raisi won the election, after an unsuccessful bid in 2017, with nearly 62% of the vote. However, the voter turnout, at 48.8%, was the lowest for a presidential election since the 1979 Iranian Revolution. Moreover, 13% of ballots were voided – the highest share of voided ballots since the revolution. Comparatively, in the 2013 and 2017 presidential elections, which were won by Hassan Rouhani, voter participation was around 70%. The sharp decline in participation and high number of protest votes demonstrate a lack of trust in the regime and a diminished hope among Iranians for making change through the ballot box.
The key moment in Iran’s presidential election was not election day or the day the results were announced. It was May 25, when the Guardian Council announced the list of vetted candidates. Nearly all the reformist and moderate candidates were disqualified from the race. Raisi, Iran’s chief justice who previously served as head of Iran’s wealthiest religious foundation Astan Quds Razavi, has deep links to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and a track record of involvement in repressing political movements, most notoriously in the 1988 mass executions of political prisoners. Nearly all the vetted candidates, with the exception of Abdolnasser Hemmati (former head of Iran’s central bank), were conservatives. Given his background, Raisi has been described as an ultraconservative and as representative of the most brutally oppressive element of the conservative camp.
Many Iranians did not see any of the vetted candidates as having the ability or willingness to make any meaningful change in the country. Another reason behind the historically low participation rate was the failure of previous presidents, particularly lame duck Rouhani, to deliver on campaign promises. In his first presidential campaign, Rouhani promised he would end the house arrest of Green Movement leaders, restore the value of the national currency and revive the economy, improve international relations to ease travel restrictions on Iranians imposed after the revolution, and put an end to Iran’s isolation within the global community through negotiating with world leaders over the disputed nuclear program. Such promises resonated with millions of Iranians who hoped Rouhani would preserve their livelihoods, which were negatively impacted by the policies of the government of former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Eight years after his first-term victory, Rouhani became a symbol of corruption, failed economic policies, and resistance within the Islamic Republic for change. Rouhani’s policies, particularly those in response to the government budget deficit (i.e., direct tax increase, inflationary tax, and foreign exchange and banking policies), have shown a detachment not only from the poor and underprivileged, who have been crushed by economic hardship, but also from educated middle-class Iranians who have been rapidly falling into poverty. Against that backdrop, the only nonconservative candidate in the recent election, Hemmati, did not received much popular support. This is likely because, as head of the central bank between 2018 and 2021, he has shared blame for the rial devaluation and overall economic deterioration in Iran.
Moreover, people’s grievances in response to the regime’s brutal clampdown on demonstrations in recent years prompted calls for boycotting the election. Political activists and mothers of young Iranians killed by security forces during demonstrations issued a widely circulated statement expressing their loss of hope for “any positive change” under the current electoral system in Iran and claiming the situation can “only get worse.”
As a platform for people to share their concerns with the candidates, Iranians held public gatherings prior to the election, and videos were circulated widely on social media. A metaphor was frequently used by Iranians who participated in those public debates: “In this election, we are presented with a few bananas and are asked to choose an orange.” The majority of Iranians did not want any of the Guardian Council’s vetted candidates as their president. Several reports covered social media trends during and after the election in Iran. Twitter (though officially banned in Iran), Instagram, and Clubhouse were the main platforms for public debate around the election. Popular hashtags of “No to Islamic Republic” and “No to Vote” trended on Persian social media. Long conversations were held on Clubhouse to consider who might win the election and what the potential presidency of each candidate might look like. While Twitter reflected a more balanced representation of both supporters and opponents of Raisi’s presidency, Clubhouse was dominated by those who criticized the vetting process and campaign promises and generally reflected a loss of hope for the future of Iran under all the candidates.
Raisi’s supporters used social media and public gatherings to show their support, calling Raisi “the man of the battlefield” – a metaphor to describe his strength and tirelessness. His main campaign slogan, “popular government, powerful Iran,” attempted to assert his confidence in popular support for his presidency and highlight his ability to preserve the regime’s regional influence and prestige. After the results were announced, his jubilant supporters took to the streets across the country in celebration.
Raisi’s supporters frequently claimed that his presidency would bring an end to government corruption. In his first press conference after the election results were announced, Raisi said he “does not have a redline” in fighting corruption in Iran. Raisi’s opponents raised concerns on social media that fighting corruption would be used as a cover for framing dissidents.
In the press conference, Raisi made a number of other statements that elicited negative reactions on social media. He diminished the importance of nuclear negotiations with the international community by saying that the country’s foreign policy does not start or end with the nuclear deal. He additionally claimed that his involvement in mass executions in 1988 was “protecting the nation from groups that could be equated with the Islamic State” and anyone in his position would “deserve to be thanked for” for such involvement. Opponents criticized Raisi for downplaying the deterioration of Iran’s economy, which they believe has been caused by avoidable political isolation, including international pressure provoked by the deterioration of the human rights conditions in Iran.
In this election, participation was seemingly quite important to the regime. Iran’s supreme leader issued a fatwa that forbade voiding ballots. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei also started an online campaign called “the right thing to do” that invited people to vote and share pictures of themselves or their stamped IDs after voting as a way to encourage higher participation. Despite such efforts, according to official results, there were 3.7 million voided ballots on election day, far more than in the previous elections. Most of these invalid ballots were probably cast by Iranians who anticipated their employment or education status would be affected if they did not vote and get their IDs stamped. An analyst in Tehran said that some people who wanted to vote in the city council election that day but not the presidential election “voted blank or wrote irrelevant names or phrases on the ballot … and threw it in the box, and some put the ballots in their pockets or tore it up,” so there were many numbered ballot slips missing. Ahmad Khatami, Friday prayer imam in Tehran, warned those who did not participate in the election or voided their ballots for their “lost opportunity” to take part in forming the “country’s future destiny.” Former President Mohammad Khatami expressed concern over the low participation and high voided ballots “that reflect people’s loss of hope and the rift between the people and the government.”
Raisi’s election as president has prompted speculation that he is being groomed to become Iran’s next supreme leader. Such speculation became stronger when some Iranian conservative media platforms started to refer to him as “ayatollah,” a title for senior Shia clerics required for assuming the position of supreme leader. Raisi’s supporters used the presidential campaign as an opportunity to express their support for him as the next supreme leader. In part, low turnout and voided ballots in this election can be seen as the majority of Iranians rejecting the prospect of Raisi succeeding Khamenei.
A combination of several factors, such as economic hardship, lack of trust in the regime, decline of hope for change within the current political structure, and possible grooming of Raisi to become supreme leader, contributed to Iranians’ lack of interest in participating in this election. How Raisi addresses such issues will help define the future of the relationship between the people and the regime and determine Iranians’ buy-in for future elections. His efforts to address these grievances will also help shape the behind-the-scenes calculations and political jockeying over who becomes Iran’s next supreme leader. Bequeathed a drastic winnowing of candidates that vastly strengthened his electoral prospects, Raisi nevertheless stumbled badly in this presidential race. Time will tell if it has any long-term impact.
is a non-resident fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington. She is the Marie Curie Fellow at the German Institute of Global and Area Studies working on Iran’s economic diversification and economic resilience strategies.
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