When Iran holds its 13th presidential election on June 18th, over 59 million eligible voters will once again face the question of whether to participate. After all, there are clear limitations to elections in the Islamic Republic. Free and fair elections – in which, the rules of political competition are equally applied to all or an independent commission ensures a legitimate process – do not exist. Most Iranian citizens are barred from the presidency. As laid out in the constitution, presidents must adhere to the state religion (Shiism); religious minorities cannot run. Moreover, only people among the country’s well-known religious and political figures (rejal-e mashabi va siyasi) can hold the presidency. Women have so far been excluded even though it is disputed whether the term "rejal" refers to men exclusively.
The body that claims the authority to interpret such provisions is the Guardian Council. The Council consists of six clerics and six jurists who, unlike the president or parliament, are not directly elected by the people. While its original mandate was to generally oversee various elections according to Article 99 of the constitution, the Council laid out its own understanding of Article 99 in 1992, declaring its responsibility for the approval and rejection of candidates as well. Today the Guardian Council is the central institution that controls access to political power.
Dominated by conservatives and hardliners, it regularly excludes thousands of potential candidates from elections, without being publicly accountable. Women in particular as well as so-called reformists and pragmatists have been most affected by the Council´s decision making.
Iranian presidential elections are significant not as a means of political competition, but rather as a national event with the potential to create social impetus in a variety of ways. The weeks before elections are traditionally periods of intensified socio-political discourse. Election campaigns have often brought controversial topics into the public eye and broken long-standing taboos, especially during live debates on TV. Social media has long been a common medium for debate, and over the past few months the audio platform Clubhouse in particular has gained traction. Reformist candidate Mostafa Tajzadeh, who will most likely be disqualified by the Guardian Council, has used Clubhouse to draw greater attention to contentious issues such as reforming the constitution and limiting the term of office of the Supreme Leader.
Furthermore, the overall role of the Guardian Council is inevitably discussed and criticized around election time. Thus the approach of an election opens up political space to expose systemic injustices and take counteraction. Time and again, Iranian women have attempted to run as candidates, openly challenging the Council. Until her death in 2019, former journalist and member of parliament Azam Taleghani registered a total of five times for presidential elections, most recently in 2017. Another 136 women tried to run that year, without success. Although the speaker of the Guardian Council, Abbas Ali Kadkhodaei, has publicly asserted on several occasions that women are not legally barred from the presidency, this has not been reflected in the council's decision-making practice to date. Despite all the setbacks, another 40 women have entered the race again this year, maintaining the pressure on the Council.
Finally, elections are also periods of volatility in which unexpected sociopolitical developments can emerge. This was the case in 2009, when hundreds of thousands of citizens – and even part of the political elite – took to the streets in the wake of the highly disputed re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and openly accused the state of electoral fraud. Many viewed the official result as a blatant violation of the principle that, while the system determines the candidates, the citizens select the winner.
Since the founding of the Islamic Republic, the majority of Iranian voters have regularly taken part in elections – despite clear institutional limitations and practical constraints on political competition. Presidential elections have achieved an average turnout of over 70 %. This indicates that, contrary to widespread assumptions abroad, many Iranians believed the presidency had a direct impact on their daily lives. Not all of those voters were supporters of the state; even Iranians who are critical of the system or opposed to it in its entirety have voted at times.
The reasons why citizens in autocratic systems participate in elections are manifold. They range from hoping for gradual political change, to preventing specific candidates from taking over, to simply trying to improve their general livelihoods. This year, however, the Islamic Republic may see a record low in voter turnout. In a May poll conducted by state broadcaster IRIB, 51% of respondents said they did not intend to vote. Only 33% were certain they were going to participate. Previously, in a survey conducted in April by the Iranian polling agency ISPA, less than half of respondents said they planned to cast a ballot.
Frustration and disappointment are running high among the population. Numerous attempts at reform have failed. People suffer from mismanagement, widespread corruption, high unemployment, a general lack of prospects for large parts of the younger generation, ongoing state repression, and restrictions on personal freedoms. All too often expectations for political change have been raised only to remain unfulfilled, most recently under President Hassan Rouhani, who was generally considered a moderate. The desperation felt by many Iranians was evident in the nationwide protests of 2017/18 and 2019/20, which were suppressed by the state in the most violent crackdown in decades. Hundreds of protesters were killed and thousands more arrested. The already poor state of the economy was exacerbated by a draconian U.S. sanctions regime (since 2018) and the outbreak of the Corona crisis (since 2020).
Today, as in nearly all Iranian elections, calls for a boycott can once again be loudly heard. Numerous prominent critics of the political conditions, such as former MP Faezeh Hashemi (daughter of former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani) or human rights defender Narges Mohammadi, are explicitly opposed to participating. Even former advocates of voting, such as Tehran University professor Sadegh Zibakalam, have now given up on elections as a means of political change.
While it is likely that a majority of the electorate will abstain from voting, it is by no means certain. Indeed, presidential elections have often brought surprises. Many Iranians may wait to make their final decision until they know which candidates the Guardian Council will admit. However, reformists in particular will likely struggle to mobilize voters. Reformist candidates such as Tajzadeh have been criticized for not being able to present a political program or a viable strategy, as well as for their general failure to provide solutions to pressing economic and sociopolitical issues. It remains unclear why Tajzadeh or any other reform-oriented candidate would be able to succeed where every incumbent since the reformers' first election victory in 1997 has failed. Many Iranians no longer believe that the system can be reformed at all.
Some voters might stay away from the ballot box out of apathy; others might see boycotting as an act of protest and as the most effective tool to deny the state the legitimacy it desires and to cause it international humiliation. It is uncertain, however, whether the official figures on voter turnout will truly reflect the mood of the population. Lower voter turnout could be attributed to the corona crisis, and the actual number of cast votes cannot be reliably determined given the lack of independent monitoring.
Whether or not a majority of Iranian citizens turn their backs on the elections, casting a vote should not be misconstrued as unequivocal support of the system, nor will taking part in elections prevent Iranians from continuing to push for social and political changes beyond the ballot box.
Dr. Azadeh Zamirirad is a political scientist and deputy head of the Africa and Middle East Division at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) in Berlin.
On Twitter: @zadehmiri
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.