July 19, 2024

For decades, Iran’s leaders could point to high voter turnouts in their elections as proof of the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic’s political system. But as voter turnout has plummeted in recent years, the election they will be now obliged to hold after the death of President Ebrahim Raisi will force the political establishment into a decision it does not want to make.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the country’s supreme leader, has two options, each carrying risks.

He could ensure that the presidential elections, which the Constitution mandates must happen within 50 days after Mr. Raisi’s death, are open to all, from hard-liners to reformists. But that risks a competitive election that could take the country in a direction he does not want.

Or he can repeat his strategy of recent elections, and block not only reformist rivals but even moderate, loyal opposition figures. That choice might leave him facing the embarrassment of even lower voter turnout, a move that would be interpreted as a stinging rebuke of his increasingly authoritarian state.

Voter turnout in Iran has been on a downward trajectory in the last several years. In 2016, more than 60 percent of the country’s voters participated in parliamentary elections. By 2020, the figure was 42 percent. Officials had vowed that the result this March would be higher — instead it came in at just below 41 percent.

Just a week before Mr. Raisi’s death, the final round of parliamentary elections in Tehran garnered only 8 percent of potential votes — a stunning number in a country where Mr. Khamenei once mocked Western democracies for voter turnout of 30 percent to 40 percent.

“Khamenei has been presented with a golden opportunity to easily, in a face-saving way, allow people to enter the political process — if he chooses to seize this chance,” said Mohammad Ali Shabani, an Iranian political analyst and editor of Amwaj, an independent news media outlet. “Unfortunately, what has happened in the last few years indicates he will not take that route.”

Iran is a theocracy with a parallel system of governance in which elected bodies are supervised by appointed councils. Key state policies on nuclear, military and foreign affairs are decided by Ayatollah Khamenei and the Supreme National Security Council, while the Revolutionary Guards have been increasing their influence over the economy and politics.

The president’s role is more limited to domestic policy and economic matters, but it is still an influential position.

Elections also remain an important litmus test of public sentiment. Low turnout in recent years has been seen as a clear sign of the souring mood toward clerics and a political establishment that has become increasingly hard-line and conservative.

“For the regime, this distance — this detachment between the state and society — is a serious problem,” said Sanam Vakil, the director of the Middle East and North Africa program at Chatham House, a London-based think tank. “What they want is a to contain conservative unity, but it’s hard to fill Raisi’s shoes.”

Mr. Raisi, a cleric who worked for years in the judiciary and was involved in some of the most brutal acts of repression in the country’s history, was a staunch loyalist of Mr. Khamenei and his worldview.

A devoted upholder of religious rule in Iran, Mr. Raisi was long seen as a potential successor to the supreme leader — despite, or perhaps because of, his lack of a forceful personality that would pose a risk to Mr. Khamenei. Now, with no clear candidate to back, Mr. Khamenei could face infighting within his conservative base.

“Raisi was a yes man, and his unimpressiveness was sort of the point,” said Arash Azizi, a historian who focuses on Iran and lectures at Clemson University in South Carolina. “The political establishment includes many people with serious financial and political interests. There will be jockeying for power.”

The candidates who are allowed to run will be indicative of what type of path the supreme leader wants to take.

Mohammad Baqer Ghalibaf, a pragmatic technocrat who is the speaker of Parliament and one of the country’s perpetual presidential candidates, will likely try to run. But his performance in Parliament in recent years has been rated poorly, Mr. Azizi said. Parliament has done little to help resolve Iran’s economic crisis, and Mr. Ghalibaf, despite calling himself an advocate for Iran’s poor, attracted national outrage in 2022 over reports that his family had gone on a shopping spree in Turkey.

Another likely contender is Saeed Jalili, a former Revolutionary Guards fighter who became a nuclear negotiator and is seen as a hard-line loyalist of Mr. Khamenei. His candidacy would not bode well for potential outreach to the West, Mr. Azizi said.

In all of Iran’s recent elections, Mr. Khamenei has shown himself willing to cull any reformist or even moderate candidates seen as loyal opposition. The results have been clear: In 2021, Mr. Raisi won with the lowest ever turnout in a presidential election, at 48 percent. By contrast, more than 70 percent of Iran’s 56 million eligible voters cast ballots when President Hassan Rouhani was elected in 2017.

And so far, there is no sign that Iran’s political establishment will reverse course.

“It’s a system that is moving away from its republican roots and becoming more authoritarian,” Ms. Vakil said, adding of Mr. Khamenei: “As long as he is comfortable with repressive control, and the elite maintain their unity, don’t expect to see a change.”

#Raisis #Death #Elections #Pose #Tricky #Test #Irans #Rulers

About The Author

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *