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Election or Selection: The Undemocratic 2021 Iranian Election

On June 18th, 2021, Iran conducted a presidential election. Seven candidates vyed to succeed the incumbent, Hassan Rouhani, who in accordance with the Iranian Constitution could not serve a third term. Externally, the process resembled that of any democratic nation: campaign posters, television ads, stump speeches, cross-country barnstorming and three nationally-televised debates. Iranian social media was abuzz after the first debate was held on June 6th. However, there is one key distinction between the Iranian election and free elections elsewhere: none of the seven candidates on the ballot were chosen by voters.

The Guardian Council, a 12-member constitutional body, is responsible for vetting hundreds of prospective candidates and selecting a few to appear before the public. Six of the council members are faqihs (experts in Islamic Law) appointed directly by the Supreme Leader of Iran (Ayatollah Khameini), while the other six are elected by the Majils (Iranian Parliament) from Mulsim jurists nominated by the Chief Justice (who is also appointed by the Supreme Leader). Any citizen born in Iran that is a devout Muslim and loyal to the Constitution and Supreme Leader may register as a candidate. A female candidate has never been permitted standing in the Islamic Republic’s 42-year history. The council is also not required to explain their decisions to the public. 592 citizens applied for candidacy in the 2021 election.

Many Iranians were disappointed by the council’s selections. Among the field of seven, only two were considered reformists, or moderates. The two chosen are not prominent figures either. Ali Larijiani, a former speaker of the parliament with close ties to the Supreme Leader, was left off the ballot. Larijiani is one of the most well known reformists in the country and was considered a favourite to succeed Rouhani. The current vice president, Eshaq Jahangiri, was barred, as was popular reformist Mostafa Tajzadeh. Former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was turned down by the council and in response announced that he would boycott the vote.

Iranian elections have never been a square process (remember the 2009 Green Movement). However, the absence of mainstream reformists in the final contest was a step too far for many citizens. In past elections, the council has allowed popular reformists to run in order to maintain the facade of democracy. Now, the government is not even attempting to hide its authoritarian nature. Even Ebrahim Raisi, the winner of the election, expressed concern with the council’s decision. Raisi benefitted the most from the exclusion of Larijiani and mainstream reformists, and yet said the election should be more “participatory and competitive.” President Rouhani also criticized the move, stating ““minimal participation is not in anyone’s interest and the first losers as a result of minimal participation are the people.” There are reports that Rouhani went so far as to send a letter to the Supreme Leader, pleading with him to add a reformist to the ballot to no avail.

“#ThereIsNoWayIWillVote” trended on Twitter in the weeks leading to the election. The final turnout was 48.8 percent out of 59 million eligible voters. To put in perspective, there was a 73.3% percent turnout for the 2017 presidential election.3 million voters spoiled their ballots in protest by not writing down any candidate’s name.



The events of the past few years likely closed the book for a more even-handed election. Rouhani’s effort to mend ties with the West backfired tremendously. The Trump Administration reneged on the nuclear deal. The economy is in free-fall after years of crippling economic sanctions. Unemployment reached 12.4% and inflation surpassed 40% in 2020. Sanctions have hurt Iran’s ability to produce and export oil. Iranians have become 15% poorer over the past decade, and spend 30-50% less on basic necessities such as bread, milk and red meat. Mass protests, the largest since 2009, arose in fifty cities across Iran in 2017, as citizens aired their grievances on the government’s mishandling of the economy, among other woes. Adding insult to injury, Quds Force commander Qassam Soleimini and nuclear scientist Mohzen Fakhrizadeh were assassinated in 2020, and Israel frequently infiltrated Iran’s nuclear program. In Khameini’s estimate, Rouhani’s attempt to forge a new foreign policy has only weakened and embarrassed Iran. Hardliners feel vindicated for their initial distrust of the West. After eight years of reformist leadership, Khameini wants to return to a policy of hostility.

Raisi’s credentials as a hardliner could not be any stronger. He has deep ties to Iran’s security, intelligence and judiciary sectors. Although technically not an ayatollah, Raisi is often referred to as one. As a boy, he attended seminary in the holy city of Qom, and even heard lectures given by Khameini. During the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988), Raisi was a member of the notorious Death Commission, which the Centre for Human Rights has accused of crimes against humanity for executing thousands of political prisoners. Raisi’s tenure as Chief Justice has also been marked by criminality in the eyes of the U.S. State Department and human rights groups. The jurist’s denouncements of the nuclear deal are heard with receptive ears by Khameini. There is even speculation that Raisi is being groomed to replace the 82 year-old Khameini as Supreme Leader.

As Iranian citizens yearn for a healthy economy and greater individual freedoms, the Supreme Leader is putting a clamp on whatever democracy Iran enjoyed before. Rouhani’s disastrous tenure and mass public unrest seem to have only strengthened Khameini’s resolve to promote the clerics’ role as the guardians of the Republic. Iranian citizens suffer as Khameini and his lackeys pursue their hardline agenda. The 2021 election was a foregone conclusion before the results were announced and it is likely that Iran will return to its closed-off, radical ways. If Iranians were actually allowed to elect their own leader, perhaps the country would look different.

Written by Benjamin Karlin


Benjamin Karlin is a columnist at DecipherGrey.

Photograph: Meghdad Madadi |Tasnim News Agency | Wikimedia.org