The Irony of Iranian “Democracy” is not Lost on its People
Marina Forti 8 March 2024

The election held on March 1 last year marked the lowest turnout in the history of republican Iran. It was also the least competitive election in forty years, with the exclusion of nearly all candidates affiliated with the opposition or more moderate factions. However, these outcomes were widely foreseen, as the election offered no significant surprises, and indeed, there were none.

Examining this recent election cycle, the first following the significant protests by the “Woman, Life, Freedom” movement, offers valuable insights into present-day Iran and potential future ramifications. Notably, Iranians were tasked with renewing both the National Assembly (the Majlis, a unicameral parliament) and the Assembly of Experts, which holds the authority to elect (and theoretically remove) the Supreme Leader within the Islamic Republic’s unique institutional framework. Given that the Assembly of Experts serves an eight-year term and the current Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is 85 years old, it is highly probable that the newly elected Assembly will grapple with the issue of succession at the highest level of leadership. This situation underscores Iranian paradoxes, where a leader possessing near-absolute powers is appointed by a body chosen through universal suffrage.

The initial data point worth examining is the voter turnout. Following the closure of polls, state media announced that approximately 25 million Iranians, constituting 41 percent of eligible voters, had participated in the election, consistent with the last official polls conducted on the eve of the election. (Alternative semi-official polls suggested a slightly lower figure of 38.5 percent.) Some commentators argue that the actual turnout might be even lower, especially considering that the Minister of the Interior disclosed that 5 percent of the votes cast were either blank or null ballots. In any case, this marks the lowest turnout recorded to date.

Despite this, official media outlets are celebrating the election results. The daily newspaper Hamshari (The Citizen), owned by the Tehran municipality and under firm conservative control, declared the vote as a “slap in the face” to Iran’s enemies on its front page. Similarly, the daily Keyhan, known for amplifying the most extremist voices within the system and whose editor is directly appointed by the Supreme Leader, hailed the elections as “glorious.” Keyhan asserted that “the Iranian people disregarded calls for boycotting the vote.”

Following the election, a video clip from 2008 circulated on social media. In the clip, Ayatollah Khamenei ridiculed the United States, citing the 40 percent voter turnout as evidence that “citizens lack trust and hope in their political leaders.” The irony is glaringly apparent.

Voter turnout has long been regarded as a barometer of the Islamic Republic’s political legitimacy, and the lack of participation raises concerns within the establishment. In the days leading up to the election, the calls for voting were particularly urgent. Much of the public discourse in Iran, including official communications, occurs on social media platforms. Images of election rallies in provincial towns, featuring lively crowds dancing to music, including women without head coverings, increasingly visible on the streets are rarely, if ever, seen in official broadcasts. Reflecting an unprecedented tolerance, a spokesperson for the Guardian Council, responsible for verifying the constitutional legitimacy of laws enacted by parliament and scrutinizing candidates’ qualifications, affirmed that “No law, no court can deprive anyone of the right to vote” when asked about the eligibility of women without headscarves to vote. Nevertheless, despite extreme efforts to mobilize voters, they proved futile.

Turnout in Tehran was notably low, initially reported at 24 percent and later revised to 34 percent by the Interior Ministry on March 3, two days post-election. Despite being home to the highest population density in the country and having the power to elect 30 out of 290 members of parliament, half of the seats remained unfilled due to insufficient votes, necessitating a runoff. Particularly intriguing is the situation of Mohammad Baqr Qalibaf, the former mayor of Tehran, who ranked fourth in the capital. His position follows implications of scandals and financial misconduct involving himself and his family, symbolizing a political elite that capitalizes on power for personal enrichment.

Non-participation in the election serves as a distinct form of protest and has engaged Iranians across different strata of society. In a poignant display, former President Mohammad Khatami, the first reformist to hold office from 1997 to 2005, refrained from casting his vote. His closest aide, former Vice President Mohammed Ali Abtahì, conveyed that this decision was “the only way for his concerns to be heard.”

The reformist opposition refrained from engaging in the election, albeit with divisions regarding the boycott appeal. Notably, around February 12, approximately 100 reformist figures urged participation and nominations despite potential vetoes, aiming to prevent extremist factions from monopolizing the field. Nevertheless, the Reform Front, an admittedly fragile coalition of reformist and moderate factions, opted against formally endorsing any candidate. Consequently, the upcoming parliament may host around 30 moderate representatives, marking an unprecedented level of minority representation for them.

Instead, the call for boycotting the election originated explicitly from other opponents, both domestic and international. Notably, lawyer Narges Mohammadi, 2023 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, issued the call from inside Evin Prison (Tehran). While the state apparatus made efforts to incentivize voter participation, there were reports of numerous arrests of bloggers and social media activists accused of “disrupting public peace” due to their anti-voting stance. Additionally, in February, the use of VPNs (virtual private network systems), widely utilized for privacy protection and bypassing censorship, was deemed illegal. Despite an existing ban on the sale or purchase of VPNs, they remain prevalent in Iran.

The trend of abstaining from voting in Iran has been evident for several years, signaling a pervasive distrust rooted in multiple factors. Foremost among these is the mounting frustration stemming from dashed hopes of economic prosperity. Over the past decade, the nation has witnessed numerous waves of internal protests, often ignited by soaring fuel or food prices, primarily involving the working class, an increasingly impoverished middle class, and numerous educated youths struggling to secure employment. These protests have faced harsh suppression from the authorities, who appear disconnected from the profound discontent brewing among the working classes. In 2019 alone, reports indicated over 1,500 deaths during street demonstrations, prompting widespread criticism even within the national parliament. The protests by youth and women following the death of Mahsa Jina Amini in police custody in September 2022 introduced another layer of discontent, reflecting impatience with regulatory and authoritarian governance.

One symptom of this discontent is reflected in voter turnout. Historically, turnout reached its peak in 1996, with 73 percent of the electorate participating (coinciding with the election of Mohammad Khatami, the first reformist president). Similarly, turnout remained notably high, exceeding 60 percent, during the 2012 and 2016 presidential elections, which saw the election of the moderate Rohani. However, since 2019, turnout has experienced a marked decline, even collapsing. In the last parliamentary elections in 2020, turnout stood at 42 percent, a figure mirrored in the 2021 presidential elections when Ebrahim Raisi was elected amidst a lack of enthusiasm and virtually no serious rivals (as significant competitors had been excluded by the authorities).

Not surprisingly, even moderate commentators have expressed concern over the growing disconnect between the realities on the ground and political representation.

Returning to the election, with the opposition effectively neutralized (with estimates suggesting that no more than around 30 out of the 290 deputies come from moderate factions), what remains is an increasingly conservative parliament. In contrast, four more or less extremist lists have emerged in tight competition with each other. Initial reports indicate that a new cadre of ultra-conservative deputies has gained strength in the new legislature.

On the other hand, while the list of those elected to the Assembly of Experts remains undisclosed, there are evident indicators. One such sign is the defeat of Ayatollah Sadeq Amoli Larijani, who lost his seat. Hailing from a prominent family within the Islamic Republic’s nomenklatura, he previously served as the head of the judiciary (from 2009 to 2019) and later as the chairman of the Arbitration Council, another supervisory institution. He was defeated by an even more conservative figure. The diminishing influence of the Larijani family is noteworthy and had already commenced when Ali Larijani, former head of the National Security Council and subsequently speaker of parliament (2008-2020), was barred from running in the last presidential election.

This follows a clear logic, similar to the reasoning behind preventing former President Rohani from running among the Experts. These are individuals whose credentials, from the perspective of the Islamic Republic, should be unquestionable. It signals that the apex of the political hierarchy, including the Supreme Leader and his inner circle, seeks to exert the tightest control over the Assembly, while also preparing for the inevitable and imminent succession. Ebrahim Raisi, widely regarded as the most unpopular and least legitimized president in modern Iran, is now prominently mentioned as a potential future Supreme Leader. Interestingly, Raisi was elected instead in the eastern province of South Khorasan.

The stakes for truth are now in play: Will there be a new leader, a collective governing body, or a revamped institutional structure? The prevailing image suggests entrenched power grappling with strategies to prolong its reign, while the actual country grapples with issues of rent, employment, and inflation.



Cover photo: Iranians participate in the 12th term parliamentary elections and the 6th term Assembly of Leadership Experts’ voting at a Tehran polling station on March 01, 2024. The elections encompass both parliamentary and Assembly of Experts’ ballots, crucial for Iran’s leadership selection and oversight. (Photo by Hossein Beris / Middle East Images via AFP.)

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