On June 18 the people of Iran can elect a new president for their country. The candidates are vying to succeed Hassan Rouhani, who having served two terms is ineligible to run again. His presidency, which began in 2013 with the promise of a new beginning under the banner of “prudence and hope” (tadbir va omid), has ended in a multidimensional crisis.
On the domestic front, Rouhani’s efforts to implement reforms, such as strengthening civil rights or introducing international norms in the economy, came to nothing. His plans to curb corruption and nepotism failed too. On the foreign policy front, the greatest achievement of his presidency, the conclusion of the 2015 Vienna nuclear agreement, was undone by the unilateral withdrawal of the United States in 2018. Washington’s subsequent imposition of sanctions plunged the Iranian economy into its deepest recession since the war with Iraq in the 1980s. Iran’s problems were then exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, the fourth wave of which is currently ravaging the country.
Against this background, the situation in Iran has deteriorated considerably in recent years. Large segments of the population have suffered great economic hardship, which was accompanied by a shrinking of the middle class and a steep rise in the poverty rate. In recent years protests have taken place all over the country, with Iranians expressing their displeasure with the political and economic conditions in the country. The state suppressed these protests with enormous harshness, even by the standards of the Islamic Republic. Hundreds of people have died, while the country’s prisons are filled with thousands of political prisoners – and the numbers are rising.
In view of this situation, it remains uncertain whether a majority of Iranians will heed the call to vote and actually go to the polls in a month’s time. Disenchantment with politics has become widespread and is now also reflected in opinion polls by local media.
Meanwhile, the hardliners are working to further expand their power in the country. They already won a clear victory in the parliamentary elections of 2020, facilitated by the mass exclusion of candidates from the camp of moderates and reformers. The price for this victory, however, was a historically low voter participation rate – the Islamic Republic is losing its people.
A decisive factor in Iranian elections is which candidates are permitted to run in the first place. The so-called Guardian Council massively undermines political competition. This body, which is de facto not legitimized by the people, decides according to political criteria who may run in elections for parliament and the presidency. The fact that elections in the Islamic Republic are neither free nor fair is therefore as obvious as it is significant.
Nevertheless, in Iran political competition and the field of political actors are broader than in most other countries in the region. And it’s not just that: in the elections themselves it is by no means clear in advance who will win. Observers expected neither the 2005 change from Mohammad Khatami to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad nor the 2013 change from Ahmadinejad to Rouhani. Within the (narrow) confines of the Islamic Republic’s political system, presidents also have the ability to make their mark. Rouhani, Ahmadinejad, Khatami and previously Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani all did so, both at home and abroad.
Thus it is worth taking an open, critical look at the upcoming presidential elections in Iran. This FES blog aims to host a diverse, multi-faceted debate, highlighting aspects that are important to Iranians in the context of the vote. But it also considers fundamental issues like the question of the importance of elections in an autocratic system, as well as the perspectives of selected regional actors. By discussing these questions — which tend to go beyond current events — the blog intends to supplement the ongoing press coverage of the elections.
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Our blog aims to host a diverse, multi-faceted debate on the Iranian presidential elections on June 18. To this end, it highlights aspects that are important to Iranians in the context of the vote as well as fundamental issues like the question of the importance of elections in an autocratic system. We also consider the perspectives of selected regional actors.