Iran’s June 18th, 2021 election was a record-breaker in terms of the lowest voter turnout in Iranian electoral history. There were seven candidates in the election, handpicked by Iran’s Guardian Council. The candidates approved were Amir-Hossein Ghazizadeh, Abdolnaser Hemmati, Ebrahim Raisi, Mohsen Rezaee, Saeed Jalili, Alireza Zakani, and Mohsen Mehralizadeh with Ebrahim Raisi being the winner. This election had only a 48.8% voter turnout and around 13% invalid and lost votes (Hafezi, 2021). Ebrahim Raisi won 62% of the votes of the people who did choose to participate in these elections (Nada, 2021). With these statistics, the 2021 Iranian presidential elections are being called a “show election” put on by the Iranian regime to legitimize their power through the presence of voters. Rather than participate or “give backing to the regime”, millions of eligible voters decided to boycott the elections altogether in an act of protest. In most cases, citizens who are politically active and believe in bipartisan theories are more likely to vote, however, for Iranians, not voting has become a form of protest thought to be more impactful than any vote could be.
Iran’s system of government is the Islamic Republic, and following the Iranian Revolution of 1979, the country’s constitution mixes theocracy with their system of democracy. While the country is largely authoritarian, there are elements of democracy such as the presidential elections. This differs from other countries with this form of government because, while the elections are very restricted, they include more than one candidate; in other authoritarian regimes, there is usually only one candidate in an electoral race. The candidates, however, must be approved by the Guardian Council and are picked based upon their ability to “portray the ideologies of Islam” which is judged upon by the Guardian Council, as well. According to the Iranian Constitution, “any Iranian citizen who believes in Shia Islam, loyal to the Constitution, the ideology of Guardianship of the Islamic Jurist and the Islamic Republic can participate in election as a presidential candidate” (The Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran). In the recent 2021 elections, The Guardian Council approved seven candidates after rejecting more than 600. Of those 600 included many prominent and popular candidates such as Ali Larijani, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (the former president of Iran), and Eshaq Jahangiri (the Incumbent Vice President). This wide disqualification was one of the first motives that effectuated many political activists to call for protesting the election altogether; Boycotting the election, one of Iran’s only elements of democracy, became an action for the sake of democracy.
In Iran’s case, Supreme Leader, currently Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, holds the ultimate authority over the government. This means that the Ayatollah has the power to execute “the general policies of the Islamic Republic of Iran”, set domestic and foreign policies, direct the armed forces and security operations, declare war, appoint and dismiss the leaders of the judiciary, censor the state radio and television networks, and essentially, enact or enforce anything that he feels portrays his ideologies of Islam (“Inside Iran – The Structure Of Power In Iran | Terror And Tehran | FRONTLINE | PBS” n.d.). In the recent elections, this meant that whoever would be the elected President would have been handpicked by the Supreme Leader. These powers are justified by the post-Revolution referendum called velayat-e faqeh, which gives Khamenei the ultimate authority to use his power in any way necessary to portray the “ideologies of Islam” (Abrahamian 2008). Hence, the Ayatollah has a great amount of power over, not only who will win the presidency, but the elected president, as well. The job of the president is, fundamentally, to carry out the laws enacted by the clergy. The presidency is also thought to be the stepping stone to becoming the Ayatollah’s successor. Velayat-e-faqeh states that the Ayatollah holds any power and justifies that power through religion. Therefore, Iranians are well aware that no matter which candidate should win the presidential election, they are handpicked by the clergy and hold no power to enact any real change, and are held unaccountable. Hence, the only form of action Iranian citizens who are unhappy with this could take is to not participate in the elections. This form of protest was even met with a declaration by the Ayatollah, stating that protest voting is religiously forbidden, as it is a form of ‘haram’, because it would weaken the regime (لندن and لندن 2021).
Oftentimes in authoritarian regimes, high election turnouts are used as a means to legitimize its rule. Rather than vote in a highly restrictive election and vote on a president who will not have the power, nor the desire (as those who are selected must follow the same ideologies as the clergy) to deliver the change that dissatisfied Iranians are looking for, there is no real incentive to vote. Dissatisfaction arises for many reasons such as a failure to properly deal with U.S. sanctions that are detrimental to the economy, state repression of the people, poverty, corruption, and longstanding nepotism in a system that doesn’t care about its people (Esfandiari, 2021). To vote and participate would show a certain amount of complacency and acceptance. For many, the boycott is against the Islamic Republic altogether in hopes of transitioning from that to an establishment that is not “anti-people”. “We boycott the June 18 presidential election show so that the current anti-people establishment does not endure,” an open letter signed by 230 activists read (Esfandiari 2021). It is believed that the Islamic Republic is what hinders the possibility of a more democratic way of government as it allows for justification of the regime even with discontent from citizens; the elected officials of the current regime in Iran are aware of the discontent from the people and they have no intention or need to make changes to keep their people happy. This is made possible by the laws and regulations of the Islamic Republic. Again, they can choose to rule in any way they see “portrays the ideologies of Islam”. Therefore, not only will a vote in an election not bring about any change, but it will also only push to legitimize the regime’s ruling because participation can and will be interpreted as complacency.
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won the 2009 Iranian presidential elections with a 62.63% majority and 24,527,516 votes. The 2009 voter turnout was 85% of eligible voters with a total number of 39,165,191total votes. In the 2021 elections, 28,989,529 voters participated in total with only a 48.8% voter turnout (Ministry of Interior of Iran, 2009). One of the biggest motivators for electoral turnout is the incentive of voting for and supporting one candidate over another. Iran’s most recent electoral turnout suggests that there weren’t many incentives to vote and citizens who believe in bipartisan theories were aware of this; a vote for any candidate would essentially only be going towards the support of the regime, as all of the candidates are handpicked, have the same ideals, and would hold no real power against the Supreme Leader. This suggests that not voting has the ability to bring more change than voting does.
Voting and electoral turnout are used to legitimize the Islamic Republic’s theocratic rule so there is much pressure on Iranian citizens to vote. Any vote is a vote for the Islamic Republic, regardless of who the candidate on the ballot is. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has explicitly expressed how voters are not only picking a president but are also giving their backing to the regime (Bazoobandi, Alinejad and Tajbakhsh, 2021). Voting, being a key element of democracy, is considered to be a “patriotic duty”. However, in Iran, it is viewed as a roadblock to achieving a real democracy; Iranian citizens are dissatisfied with the Islamic Republic and participating in the elections would act as a legitimization of its regime. Political activists who are boycotting are stating a message that they do not accept the “show election” and are not satisfied with the government; they don’t believe that the Islamic Republic is a democracy, and they don’t wish to pretend. “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.” (Bazoobandi, Alinejad, and Tajbakhsh, 2021). For the almost 52% of Iranians that decided to boycott the 2021 Iranian presidential elections, not voting brought more impact than any vote could have brought.
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Esfandiari, Golnaz. 2021. “Disgruntled Iranians Say ‘No Way,’ Call For Boycott Of June Presidential Election.” RadioFreeEurope/RadioLiberty. https://www.rferl.org/a/iran-presidential-election-boycott-poverty-corruption-repression/31268141.html (24 April 2022).
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