Low Turnout Embarrasses Hard-Liners in Iran

Low Turnout Embarrasses Hard-Liners in Iran

Low Turnout Embarrasses Hard-Liners in Iran

The religious right captured the presidency, but voters still registered their dissent.


The outcome of the stage-managed Iranian elections on May 19 must have pleased its architects. Hard-liners captured the presidency, and all the major side elections, including key city council races, went more or less according to plan.

Yet, even as circumscribed as it was, the Iranian electorate managed to have its say in the prearranged proceedings. According to the official results, 52 percent of the electorate boycotted the election and another 13 percent cast “void and blank” ballots. In several metropolitan areas, empty ballots outnumbered those for candidates, even though the authorities had cleverly tried to combine the presidential and city council elections. In the latter election, in Tehran, only 4 percent chose to vote, a fraction of the turnout in years past.

While this kind of an outcome may cause a shrug in other countries, in the PR-conscious Islamic Republic, where voting rates of 70 percent have been a fixture of elections for well over four decades, it is causing great consternation and embarrassment for political and religious leaders. This is all the more awkward because most people assume that even these low figures must have been doctored. This assumption is not entirely without foundation. In the capital city, Tehran, where a 26 percent voter turnout has been reported, and where both the public and the experts could easily compare crowd sizes in this and other elections, the consensus seems to be that the government manipulated and inflated the official figure.

But to the preternaturally cynical electorate, what is most surprising is not that the results have presumably been doctored but that they were not doctored more. In the days before the election, everyone from Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei down to the Friday Prayer leaders exhorted the people to vote by saying the election was a referendum on the structure of government. For example, according to Khamenei, “not participating” was akin to “distancing from the entire system.” Now that more than 65 percent of the country declined to vote, many ordinary people ask if the results should not be interpreted according to Khamenei himself as a rejection of the entire system.

There were many unexplained discrepancies in the election. On the first day of the announcement, the Interior Ministry’s total tally didn’t match the total for the four running candidates put together.

Also, according to the official data, President-elect Ebrahim Raisi had increased his voting margins by 16 percent compared to four years ago. This seemed puzzling given that every other hard-line candidate lost between 25 percent to 35 percent of their margins on account of the ongoing economic crisis.

Further, no one knew of anyone who had voted for an obscure physician named Qazizadeh Hashemi who had garnered over a million votes. Even the 2.5 million votes for a self-described reformist named Abdulnasser Hemati seemed suspect, since practically all pro-reform voters had decided to boycott the vote this year.

To many bemused observers, these developments, including the emergence of the much-mocked “void and blank” voting bloc—which in normal circumstances would have been routinely suppressed—are seen as a sign of mischief by the outgoing Hassan Rouhani government to embarrass its rivals. For the conspiracy-conscious hard-liners in power, the numbers point to nefarious plots by the executive branch to tarnish a great display of popular support for the president-elect.

For example, the hard-line faction that controls the parliament is preparing several bills to investigate alleged irregularities in the electoral process that had supposedly altered turnout figures against Raisi.

Nasrollah Pejmanfar, the head of a special parliamentary investigations committee dealing with voting irregularities and other matters, has been quoted as saying that early closure of voting booths contributed to the historically low turnout and the blank ballots. Pejmanfar specifically referred to the fact that some voting booths had closed earlier than the extended hour of 2 am. It appears that several local officials saw no point in expending state resources on maintaining polling stations after midnight, especially since no one had showed up to vote for hours beforehand—and since religious conservatives usually vote in the morning hours as a religious obligation.

Some conservatives, like those writing in the hard-line newspaper Kayhan, tried to explain away the embarrassing figures by pointing to the economic hardship afflicting many poor families and individuals. Critics, however, said that other elections—like the 1997 election, which scored an 80 percent participation rate—had come on the heels of major recessions. Also, the highest turnouts in the current election are from some of the poorest provinces, such as Baluchistan in southeast Iran.

The sense of gloom and dread was not confined to conspiracists and reformists; members of the conservative right who are being unceremoniously purged from the polity by the hard-liners were also bitter about these developments, though perhaps less vocally. Hassan Bayadi, a prominent conservative politician whose list of candidates for Tehran city council elections had been routed by the rival radical list that happened to include the late Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani’s daughter, Narjess Soleimani, revealed that there had been major irregularities associated with counting the city council votes as well. In his statement he referred to it as the method of “counting bundled paper money,” wherein the denomination of the first bill on top of the stack is regarded as representing the content of the rest of the bundle. It was so blatant, according to Bayadi, that even the usually taciturn Militant Clergy Association of Tehran had lodged a protest with the authorities. He said the protest were to no avail.

The Opposition’s Euphoria

Opposition circles widely celebrated the spontaneous boycott as a vindication of their decades-long view that it was impossible to reform the system through elections. Right now there is a sense of purpose among these groups, which range from the Maoist left to the monarchist right, and this had not been the case for a very long time. They are united in their goal of finally toppling the regime. The Iranian opposition is notoriously factionalized and fractious, and it’s unclear if these disparate tendencies can consolidate their ranks. The fact remains, though, that even if the opposition manages to unify, which is a very tall order, it has no way of mobilizing against the government. Too many opposition cadres are aging and enfeebled, and the security forces are ubiquitous and efficient.

At present, there are different narratives proffered for this new phase of the situation in Iran. Ahmad Hashemi, a leftist activist and intellectual, argues that the election heralds a new beginning in which there is no illusion among the populace about changing the Islamic regime from inside and through the elections. Taking a cue from the Italian Marxist writer Antonio Gramsci, he sees the way forward with an emerging group of “organic intellectuals,” who, unlike the Reformists and their leftist friends, will speak truth to power regardless of costs. He told me, “The traditional intellectuals who repeated the past have nothing new to say in the 21st century. Iran needs organic intellectuals who formulate the people’s wishes in coherent form, curb power, and struggle for capturing levers of power.”

Others were less romantic in their assessment. Majid Mohammadi, an Iranian American sociologist who had been broadly supportive of many of Donald Trump’s policies, credited Trump for Raisi’s success. He wrote recently in The Independent Persian: “Trump had two historic and major achievements in his Iran policy. One was the elimination of Qasem Soleimani, which was a major blow to the Quds Force, the IRGC, the hardcore, and the Islamic Republic’s ‘field’; and secondly, marginalizing the pro-status-quo group, which billed itself to the public and the international community as reformist and moderate and middle of the roader. The second achievement opened the path for marginalizing the so-called Reformists.”

The Road Ahead

The election has bolstered the argument of those who have questioned the ability of the Islamic Republic to reform itself. What is evident is that in the great contestation between the theocratic and the republican elements in the Islamic Republic—enshrined respectively in the fifth and sixth articles of its Constitution—the former has clearly won the day again. This was a trend that started a decade ago and has gathered force ever since. As early as 2011, Khamenei indicated that he wanted to replace an elected president with a prime minister handpicked by parliament. In a speech on October 16, 2011, to a group of his ardent supporters in the city of Kermanshah in western Iran, he said, “If, in the far-off future, it is felt that the parliamentary system for selecting those who head the executive branch works better, there is nothing intrinsically wrong in changing the current arrangement.” Ever since, countless conservative writers and pundits have taken up this idea and called for its immediate implementation.

“What has prevented them so far from effecting the change has not been the political will but the force of circumstances,” an Iranian political scientist at Azad University of Tehran, who wished to remain anonymous, told me. “The time is ripe for them for a constitutional change that gets rid of the irksome presidency once and for all.”

As for foreign relations, the academic scoffed at the idea advanced by many outside Iran that a monolithic leadership finally presaged a renewed national focus and a less belligerent foreign policy. “This is the moment the hard-liners have been praying for for a very long long time. Once the economy takes a semblance of order and stability, we should see a radicalization of the foreign policy, not its moderation.” He added, “It would also help divert attention from domestic problems.”

In his first press conference after the election, Raisi was dismissive of criticisms of his human rights record. And on the all-important nuclear deal, Raisi was more critical of the US and European governments than the current Iranian government has been, indicating a harder stance by his administration. This may explain why some in the White House are apparently eager to reach an agreement before Raisi takes over in early August. As far as Rouhani is concerned, he is also anxious to make a deal now and take credit for the lifting of the sanctions.

This outcome wouldn’t necessarily be too bad for Raisi, who stands to reap the economic benefits without appearing in the eyes of his supporters to have bent to the US diktat. This may also explain his surprisingly tough rhetoric, contrary to many expectations, in his press conference.

Time will tell what the long-term impacts of the 2021 election will be. This may well be the last election before the passing of the supreme leader, who is 82 years old and reportedly not in great health. Depending on how he manages the challenges facing him in the first year of his presidency, Raisi could be chosen as the next supreme leader.

Perhaps as the harbinger of things to come, on May 20, for the first time in memory, dozens of Afghan nationals who were waiting outside their embassy in Tehran for consular purposes were arrested en masse, while embassy staff were badly manhandled by the police. Earlier, the police chief had indicated that a hardened stance on a variety of civil and political issues was to follow.

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