Low election turnout could spell trouble for Iran regime, experts say
The 2021 Iranian presidential election will mark a turning point in the country’s history and a fundamental crisis of legitimacy for the regime if turnout fed by disillusionment falls below 50%, according to leading experts.
The election on Friday – in effect a contest between the hardline chief of the judiciary, Ebrahim Raisi, and the quasi-reformist former governor of the central bank Abdolnaser Hemmati – has been one of the most engineered in the history of the Islamic republic.
Polls have suggested turnout could be as low as 40%, as a mix of those disillusioned with all politics and those opposed to the regime stay away, rejecting the call from the political class to recognise it is their patriotic duty to vote. The fear of a low turnout led the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to call for “a show of force” at the ballot box, saying it would ease external pressures on the country.
Sadegh Zibakalam, a distinguished Tehran University politics professor, said the regime defended itself over the past few decades by pointing to turnout as an indirect sign of support and almost a referendum for the Islamic republic.
“It will be a turning point because a majority do not take part in the election and that means a majority do not support the Islamic republic any longer. That is the crucial point of this election,” he told a King’s College London seminar from Tehran. In the past, he said, “the best reply from the Islamic republic was ‘you saw for yourself that more than 50% participated in the election’, it means indirectly that the people with their vote still support the Islamic republic”.
Turnout was estimated to be about 37% in the hours before polls closed – low but not catastrophically so.
The outspoken Zibakalam, who has more than 1.1 million followers on Instagram, also said the election had unleashed a deep conversation about the true source of power in Iran. “If the decisions are taken by the supreme leader and by the Revolutionary Guards, what is the point of people going to the ballot box and choosing a president?”
Critics say the reformist President Hassan Rouhani was shown only to have been in officebut not truly in power, and in the last month reformists had been utterly outmanoeuvred by the regime which, through its control of the 12-strong guardian council, disqualified any serious reformist from standing. The reformists were revealed as powerless to do anything about it. Such disqualifications by the council were common but never so comprehensive.
Roxane Farmanfarmaian, a lecturer on Middle East politics at Cambridge University, also said as a result the regime may be facing a legitimacy crisis. “We have always known these are not free elections due to the selection of candidates, but that selection always reflected the different groups within the government. This time it does not, and reflects a desire to control the situation.”
One reason for the manipulation is that the deep state knows it is possible the 82-year-old supreme leader may not be alive at the next election in four years, and the succession, only secured once before in the history of the republic, is intended to go to Raisi, a point hinted at in the TV debates.
Another reason advanced by Iranian watchers is more ideological. The supreme leader believes Iran must reach the third phase of a truly Islamic government. This involves narrowing the circle and purifying the leadership, requiring even figures such as the loyalist Ali Larijani, the former parliament speaker, to be debarred because he saw relations with the west as a necessary counterweight to reliance on Russia and China.
Alex Vatanka, the Iran programme director at the Middle East Institute in Washington, said: “Raisi is only in the race because he is backed fully by the supremeleader and the [Revolutionary Guards]. He is not a great orator, he does not have a vision, but they think they can control him and keep the regime intact. The big challenge for Raisi and those who have engineered this election is whether they think the path they have followed the past 30 years will help the regime survive.”
But if, as expected, Raisi wins, he will have the support of a conservative-dominated parliament and the unelected government, including the Revolutionary Guards, in a way that his predecessor did not, at least in his final years. They may even cut him some slack financially, bring him into the decision-making circle, and finally resolve the nuclear issue. It appears as if the supreme leader kept the Vienna talks on hold to ensure the reformists could not reap electoral dividend for the lifting of US sanctions.
The system will give him more power, Zibakalam believes, since “Raisi is trusted fully by the establishment. It means Iran will reach a deal with the US over the nuclear issue.
“Does that mean Iran will reach agreement on other issues such as the Iranian military presence in Yemen, Lebanon and Syria, or the call for the annihilation of the state of Israel? That would be too much to expect.”
Raisi, Vatanka said, was 19 at the time of the 1979 revolution, and has an insular mindset. “He knows very little about the outside world and due to his involvement in the execution of thousands of prisoners in 1988, he will not be allowed to travel.
Zibakalam added: “This election more or less brought the end of the previous generation of reformists such as Mohammad Khatami. The forces that created the reform movement in Iran 24 years ago are much stronger today. They have not disappeared or evaporated. If anything they are more powerful as a latent force pressing for change.
“The prominent leaders are politically dead because people no longer respect them, or obey them or have any faith in them, but the forces for change among Iranian youth, women, minorities, Sunnis are much stronger.”
Sooner or later, perhaps another decade, those latent forces armed with social media will have created a new generation of reformists in Iran, he said. “You simply cannot put them all in Evin prison.”