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The regime’s crisis of confidence undermines democracy


Iran’s presidential election next week comes at a particularly difficult time for the Islamic Republic. Economic hardship has sparked deadly street protests; desperation for the future is pervasive and voter apathy is widespread; and election boycott campaigns have taken root.

The trend on Twitter is the Persian hashtag: #NoWayIVote.

With the regime’s popular legitimacy at stake, this resulted in a crisis of confidence among the powerful conservatives and an unprecedented drift of democratic practices towards more autocratic methods.

Analysts warn that these measures will likely only further alienate voters across the political spectrum in Iran on election day, June 18.

The first sign that this election would be unlike any other came when the powerful Council of Guardians announced the shortlist of selected candidates.

Ensuring that the candidacy of die-hard judicial leader Ebrahim Raisi – a middle-ranking, low-charismatic cleric who lost the last election – was virtually unchallenged, the council rejected centrists, reformists and most other well-known conservatives. known.

Even some hard-line supporters were shocked by this brazen attempt to craft the outcome, which seemed to upset the decades-long tense balance between the “Islamic” theocratic regime and the democratic “republican” aspects of the state.

The Guardian Council, a 12-member body that oversees elections and can overrule decisions of parliament, has often been criticized for its overzealous scrutiny, especially of reformist candidates. But this is the first time he has shaped an outcome so clearly.

“I have never found the decisions of the Council so unjustifiable,” lamented Sadegh Larijani, a veteran member of the Council and former head of the judiciary. Alluding to the intelligence arm of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), a key tool of outright power, he complained on Twitter of “increasing interference by intelligence agencies” and their ” intentional manipulation “of the decision at the end of May to anoint Mr. Raïssi.

Dismayed, he said, “In the midst of these strange times, I seek refuge with God.

The second extraordinary sign is the administration’s relative indifference to voter turnout – a measure described in every vote since the 1979 Islamic Revolution as crucial evidence of enduring popular support.

Little is done to combat apathy and boycott campaigns, as if this vote of public confidence is no longer necessary – or achievable.

“The elections will drastically erode the legitimacy of the regime,” says Ervand Abrahamian, a leading historian of modern Iran and a retired professor at the City University of New York.

“Over the past four decades, the main form of legitimacy has been a high turnout of the people in elections, sometimes with a turnout of 80%,” explains Professor Abrahamian. “Anything below 50% was considered a vote of no confidence. “

Recent polls indicate a likely participation of less than 40% or even less.

Behind Raisi’s Choice

Amid a sense of decline and growing unpopularity, analysts say Mr. Raisi’s choice – and how the so-called Islamic Republic’s deep state made that choice – speaks volumes about the levels growing anxiety among Iranian leaders.

The stakes are particularly high today, with no clear successor to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, now 82.

Mr. Raisi can be seen as a trusted person and is even viewed by some as the next potential Supreme Leader, although his religious credentials are weak. Among other leadership positions, the current head of the judiciary was the guardian of the Imam Reza shrine apparatus in Mashhad.

Yet Mr Raisi is troubled by his role on an inquisition-style “death commission” in Tehran that oversaw the execution of thousands of prisoners in 1988 – a “medieval context” which, according to Professor Abrahamian , “Would further erode the legitimacy regime” if elected president.

Mr Raisi was handily defeated in 2017 by outgoing President Hassan Rouhani, a centrist whose plans to reach out to the West, improve the economy and increase social freedoms have raised hope – and a high turnout – in the two elections he won.

Iranians’ hopes rose with the landmark 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, but collapsed in 2018 when the United States withdrew from the deal and imposed “maximum pressure” sanctions.

Limiting the choice to Mr. Raisi “is so self-defeating,” says Professor Abrahamian. “If you can no longer give someone like Rouhani to run against the Tories, then who is really going to vote, other than Raisi’s true believers?”

Redefining democracy?

The shift to a non-competitive race heralds an effort by some hard-line supporters to redefine “democracy” in Iran, as the reformists’ multiple victories, starting with the election of Mohammad Khatami in 1997, clearly show their popularity.

“We have a problem that started with Khatami’s presidency,” archconservative strategist Hassan Abbasi told Iranian media. “We have adopted the Western democratic model for the electoral process. … It was a mistake.

“The United Arab Emirates are not holding any elections; don’t people live with fewer headaches? He said of this Persian Gulf monarchy. “There are no elections in Oman. … None in Turkmenistan. … All of these people are living with fewer headaches, right?

This argument has taken hold among pro-regime elements who fear losing power for good if a hard-line non-supporter wins again, says a well-connected Iranian analyst who visits Iran often and demanded the anonymity.

“I would use the following headline, ‘This is the Deep State’s Attempt to Take Control,'” says the analyst, who defines the deep state as including some personalities from the Supreme Chief’s office, clerics and die-hard lawmakers, parts of the judicial and state media, and IRGC intelligence.

The lesson of 2017

The turning point for them was the 2017 election, when hard and moderate conservative forces – and all of their media – backed Mr Raisi, but he still lost 8 million votes.

The defeat “was the ultimate lesson that… they won’t win in a truly competitive election,” the analyst said. “So if they want to change things in their favor, they will have to tighten the political space to a degree that gets their own guy out of the polls.”

“For them, Syria-type elections, Russia-type elections, they like that,” explains the analyst. “They always really think, ‘We need some kind of popular support’, but for them it’s enough if there is a clear result at the end,” like 70% for Mr. Raisi – although these 70% represent only 11 million votes, out of 59 million eligible voters.

Indeed, a low turnout would indicate a willingness to “punish the Islamic Republic,” Iranian journalist Fereshteh Sadeghi said in Tehran on Tuesday during a Johns Hopkins University webinar. “It doesn’t necessarily mean that we want to overthrow you. … We just want to say, ‘OK, you don’t care about us; we don’t care about you.

The attempt to narrow the democratic space has also sparked debate among weaned conservative factions over the dual aspect of Islamic and Republican introduced by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who stressed that the people “are the lords of the ruling elite.”

Many hard-line camps “were really angry and continued to be angry with this narrow choice because (…) they believe in the republican nature of the system and it requires votes and elections,” Narges explains. Bajoghli, expert at Johns Hopkins. University that closely follows conservative discourse in Iran.

“They are doing their best to prevent the reformists from coming to power, but they do not want to do it through the process that has been put in place in recent weeks, because it takes away any claim of legitimacy,” Ms. Bajoghli. , author of “Iran Reframed: Anxieties of Power in the Islamic Republic”.

Internal vs. external

She notes the irony that Iran’s external strategies succeed in countering American and Israeli influence, through an Iran-led “axis of resistance” from Gaza and Syria to Iraq and Yemen. Yet at home, the forces that orchestrate and support these “victories” are struggling to win free elections.

“At the regional level, they are very strong. Internally, they are very unpopular with a large part of the population, ”Ms. Bajoghli explains.

This caused a potentially dangerous miscalculation, says Professor Abrahamian.

“The rational thing to do when things go wrong is to try to open up, to get more support from the public. But if you limit yourself, it just alienates more people,” he says.

“I think the most important thing is the question of legitimacy, and if they don’t have that legitimacy all they will get is raw power of terror. [that] puts the balance of power much more in the hands of the Revolutionary Guards, ”he adds.

And in this distance from democratic mechanisms, Iran has many examples.

“We have seen, not only across the region, but around the world, states ready to completely militarize the streets in an attempt to silence or at least repel protest movements, and Iran is part of that. trend, ”Ms. Bajoghli said. “I think their math is, ‘It worked in all of these places. It will work for us.

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