In Iran, elections are a show of allegiance not of democracy

January 29, 2016

In representative democracies, the purpose of elections is clear enough: Voting serves as a decision-making process by which the population chooses an individual to hold public office. But what purpose do elections serve in authoritarian regimes such as the Islamic Republic of Iran?
How come Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the regime’s propaganda machine constantly urge the electorate to vote while simultaneously banning candidates from running for public office?
And how come the electorate votes when it is obvious that elections in Iran have little influence on the selection of the ruling elite or policymaking?
The answer to the first question can be found in the Islamic Republic’s distinct interpretation of the act of voting as the renewal of allegiance by the umma — the Islamic community of believers — to the leader of the revolution.
According to this interpretation, the act of voting is of greater importance than who is elected to office. Following this logic, the bigger the voter turnout is, the firmer is the bond of loyalty of the public to the leader and the affirmation of the regime’s legitimacy.
High voter turnout for elections, however, is a double-edged sword for the regime in Tehran because these historically have resulted in a smaller share of support for candidates favoured by Khamenei.
Such was the case with the reformist Mohammad Khatami’s 1997 landslide victory over Ali- Akbar Nateq Nouri, Khamenei’s favourite for the presidency. Mir-Hossein Mousavi’s popularity in the 2009 campaign against the incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Hassan Rohani’s election victory over Saeed Jalili in 2013 are other examples.
In those instances, larger-than-expected voter turnout caught the regime off guard and either led to the victory of the candidate least favoured by Khamenei or the largest anti-regime rallies in the history of the Islamic Republic, as was the case in the aftermath of the fraudulent 2009 presidential election won by Ahmadinejad.
The Islamic Republic, however, has learned from its mistakes and in the run-up to the February 26th elections for the 290- seat Majlis, or parliament, and the 88-member Assembly of Experts, a body that will appoint Khamenei’s successor, the regime seems to be better prepared to engineer the process this time around.
The watchdog Guardian Council allows a few “undesirable elements”, such as former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, to stand for public office in an attempt to mobilise voters, but simultaneously disqualifies thousands of other candidates. Even if elected, those deemed problematic by the clerical regime installed by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini after the 1979 Islamic revolution will be isolated in the political arena and pose no serious challenge to Khamenei’s authority.
So why does Iran’s electorate participate in elections in spite of public awareness of how the process is manipulated and the results doctored? Why vote in elections that exert little influence on the selection of who rules and determines national policies?
The answer to this question can be found in the ability of the regime to create the illusion that the choice is between bad and worse. In order to avoid the worse option of being governed by incompetents such as Ahmadinejad, the public rushes to the ballots to vote for technocrats from Rohani’s circle.
And to avoid the Assembly of Experts being dominated by religious zealots such as Ayatollah Mohammad-Taqi Mesbah Yazdi, they rush to vote for Rafsanjani, a master manipulator who has become immensely rich over the years through questionable dealings but retains considerable political clout and public support when put up against the arch-conservatives who hold power.
This game has worked well for the regime but one day the Iranian public will demand a choice between good and bad instead of the choice between bad and worse. On that day, Khamenei will look in vain for the masses whose allegiance he thinks he has won.