Two television debates on Saturday and Tuesday between seven candidates and a brief look at their backgrounds promises a lacklustre presidential election in Iran.
Nevertheless, these elections are significant because they reveal the banality of a theocratic regime which has, for over 42 years, eliminated all opposition and starved itself of dynamic thinking, debate and discussion.
The favourite in the heavily choreographed contest slated for June 18 is the hardline Judiciary Chief Ebrahim Raisi, around whom there has been much image-building. Saeed Jalili, the former chief negotiator at nuclear talks is said to be the second choice. Both have been unsuccessful candidates in previous presidential elections. Raisi received just over fifteen million votes in 2017 and Jalili over four million in 2013.
There are three other hardline candidates, including the former IRGC commander, Mohsen Rezai. Two others are running independently: Abdul-Nasser Hemmati, the former Central Bank governor, and Mohsen Mehralizadeh, who claims he will build the third Reform government, following in the footsteps of the popular former president Mohammad Khatami.
Iran’s leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, stands accused of manipulating elections for over twenty years by selecting favourites. Indeed in 1989, he ascended to the top post himself through machinations by the then-powerful Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. In 2005 he pushed aside the same man, the centrist Rafsanjani, in favour of the novice hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Since then, harsh crackdowns have intensified and with it deep resentment, especially amongst the modern educated, women and the young. President Hassan Rouhani’s failure to improve the political situation or reverse the devastating impact of US sanctions on Iran’s economy means that anger is high and turnout is expected to be very low.
To win votes, candidates boast about caring about women’s conditions. But their proposals are condescending.
Raisi says he has created a green area in Mashhad for women’s gymnastics; Jalili proposed additional care for women in need, and Mehralizadeh criticises harsh messages about women’s headscarves, proposing “they should just be given notice”.
“Debates are so shallow,” the veteran centrist Mohamad Atrianfar told Sazandegi newspaper. “People don’t even know most of the candidates.”
“Election processes are not important,” a centrist spokesperson, Hossein Marashi, told a Clubhouse chatroom sarcastically. “What’s important is the results.”
Endemic manipulation of elections has discredited the regime and wiped away not only independent political thinking but any semblance of political variation. Gone are the days you could point to candidates as being conservative, centrist or reformist, or indeed falling somewhere on the left to right of the political spectrum.
This has in turn led to a weak political structure in which there are no political parties or institutions. Few small parties seem to be more interested in “pleasing the establishment than the public,” says Communications Minister, Mohammad-Javad Azari-Jahromi.
As a result, political allegiances are confused and political blocks are divided from within.
The rejection by the Guardian Council of hardline and centrist heavyweights such as Ali Larijani, or high profile IRGC candidates like Gen. Hossein Dehghan or Gen. Saeed Mohamad shows fragmentation at the core of the establishment.
Both commanders had been tipped by pundits as possible winners. Larijani, the former speaker of parliament, was once regarded as one of the top ten political players in Iran. His brother Sadeq Larijani, a former Judiciary Chief, expressed outrage at the Guardian Council for disqualifying him.
Another layer of insider anger was voiced during the first television debate when Rezaei threatened to put Hemmati on trial for treason and ban him “and other members of the government” from travelling.
Disunity is also rife amongst the reformist and moderate camps who could not even agree over a single candidate for the elections. Neither Hemmati (moderate) nor Mehralizadeh (reformist) were in their list of candidates. Both camps are still confused about whether to take part in the election or boycott it.
Dictatorships that pretend to be based on the will of the people stand and fall with phoney elections.
In Iran, the establishment has faced several challenges from within.
In 1997 and 2001 the leader of Reform Movement, Khatami, won a landslide and upstaged Ayatollah Khamenei with his calls for a “dialogue of civilisations”. The Green Movement directly challenged Khamenei in 2009. Even President Rouhani, a deep insider, proposed a referendum in 2018 to change the constitution and reduce his power.
No such serious challengers are in the 2021 elections.
“This time the show is more important than the election itself,” says journalist Masoumeh Nasseri. Another journalist Siavash Fallahpoor calls it a “manoeuvre of banality”.
Autocratic regimes often need to showcase their elections not just to boast about their popularity but also as a way of measuring their chances.
But such attempts to depict Iran’s presidential elections as normal look as foolish as they are ignorant. They will not convince anyone, least of all the highly sceptical Iranian public.
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