By Faramarz Davar
June 17, 2021
Recent surveys have indicated that turnout at the Islamic Republic’s 13th presidential election is set to be the lowest on record. In a bid to put a gloss on this, a spokesperson for the Guardian Council has already said that low turnout would not invalidate any candidate’s majority. Several politicians who want Ebrahim Raeesi to win have repeated the same.
The 2021 election is the ninth to have taken place during the 32 years of leadership of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. With the exception of the first two, which led to the presidency of Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, high turnout always has been important for Khamenei.
In his speech on Wednesday, Khamenei once again claimed that the “enemies” were trying to undermine the Iranian elections: “The American and British media are killing themselves to decrease the presence of the people at the ballot box… The enemies want to weaken Iran and turn it into a hotbed for terrorists and mercenaries by reducing popular participation.”
“Fortunately, our elections have always been healthy. Those who protest may be referring to a mistake somewhere, but overall, it has always been healthy.”
Close to 60 million Iranians are eligible to vote tomorrow but turnout is expected to be at a historic low. Last week, IranWire’s citizen journalist spoke to 50 people in a park in Tehran, of whom just two planned to vote. With less than 24 hours until the polls open, reformist camp is still deciding whether to encourage supporters tto go to the polls.
The Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic has always described turnout as a decisive factor in the “legitimacy” of the system. Twice after the 2009 election, in which the violent repression of protests resulted in public outrage against the electoral system, Ayatollah Khamenei called on the people to vote for “Iran” and reconcile with the ballot box. Even if he did not support a candidate himself, he said, he wanted to see participation increase. In both cases, after the vote he called it a “vote for the system.”
In the past, Iranian citizens have engaged with the electoral process, leading to some genuine democratic feats in a mostly undemocratic country. For instance, the candidate not approved by Khamenei, Mohammad Khatami, won the presidential race in 1997 with 20 million votes.
On Nowruz 1998, in the aftermath of Khatami’s big win, Khamenei publicly defined the level of voter participation he wanted to see – and which the Islamic Republic has not been able to generate ever since. “One of the greatest indicators of the popularity of governments in the world is how much people participate in major national elections,” Khamenei said.
“That is a system in which the presence of the people is felt. This election, with the presence of 30 million people and the election of a president on 20 million votes, made the case for the system of the Islamic Republic, which is increasingly popular, contrary to the claims and wishes of the enemies. It was of great value to the Islamic Republic.”
Khamenei was 60 years old at the time he made this speech. Nearly a quarter of a century has passed since then, but the 82-year-old leader of the Islamic Republic still has the same prescription for a “popular” and “favorable” government.
It’s not just Khamenei who benefits from high turnout at presidential elections. The members of multiple executive administrations, from Khatami to Ahmadinejad to Hassan Rouhani, have cited turnout as testament to their national popularity no being questioned abroad about the state violating Iranian citizens’ rights.
Just three months before the bloodiest repression of Iranians by the state in recent times in November 2019, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif had visited Norway. Asked about public discontent in the country and government suppression of dissent, he referred to the presidential election two years earlier, saying: “If that were the case, and as you say, our government is trampling on the rights of its people and oppressing them, then why do 73 percent of them go to the polls?”
Ayatollah Khamenei himself had said two days before the 2017 election: “God willing, people – men and women – will participate throughout the country and give honor to the system of the Islamic Republic.” And the day after, he added on Twitter: “The winner of yesterday’s election is you, the people of Iran, and the system of the Islamic Republic … All classes, all tastes, all political factions came together and voted for the Islamic Republic side by side.”
The 11th parliamentary elections came after the state-sponsored killing of hundreds of civilian protesters in November 2019 and the downing of a Ukrainian Airlines passenger plane by the Revolutionary Guard, which killed 176 innocent people. But participation in the parliamentary elections is less important to Khamenei.
For years Khamenei has linked the degree of participation to consent with Iran’s authoritarian-theocratic system, assuming it was a guarantor of security. Even if a member of the Guardian Council says that the turnout does not invalidate the result, these concepts are inseparable as far as Khamenei is concerned. He is sensitive to the notion of a boycott and has gone so far as to tell citizens that even if they are not interested in him, vote at least for the sake of Iran.
Since last year’s mediocre parliamentary election, the visible repression of the people through the Iranian judiciary has been on the rise, tens of thousands have died in a badly-managed pandemic, and now the widespread disqualification of presidential candidates has left most Iranians more cynical than ever before. The more Khamenei says on the matter, the more it becomes clear that from his perspective at least, the regime needs their vote.