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A political farce

Why Iranians, at home and in the diaspora, call for a boycott of the country’s coming presidential election

By: /
14 June, 2021
Banners and posters of presidential candidates for the June 18 election in the streets of Tehran. Fatemeh Bahrami/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

On June 18, Iranians will witness yet another political farce known as presidential elections.

In every presidential election for the past 42 years, Iranians have had to choose the lesser evil from among pre-approved candidates.

The failed 1979 Iranian Revolution, which had democracy as its main demand, ended up instead with a system of government known as the “Absolute Guardianship of the Islamic Jurist,” in which the “supreme leader” is the absolute ruler and an appointed “Guardian Council” of clerics and Islamic lawyers is charged with weeding out non-desirable candidates for the presidency and parliament.

Prospective politicians who pass muster with the Guardian Council usually belong to one of the two factions of the Islamist ruling bloc — “principlists,” referring to conservative, right-wing Islamists, or “reformers,” meaning those who would like to see some adjustments to the way Iran is governed but don’t advocate major change.

For this year’s elections, however, many Iranians have decided not to bother voting for any of the choices on offer. A recent poll by the semi-official Iranian Students Polling Agency revealed that 32 per cent of respondents said they would not vote “under any circumstances,” while 34 per cent said they certainly would.

The regime, for its part, isn’t much concerned with legitimacy. Faced with the prospect of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s death (he is 82 with prostate cancer), and questions about succession, it decided to further solidify the hard-liners’ position.

An assortment of such men, including several generals of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the former speaker of the parliament, and the head of the state radio/TV, registered to enter the race.

At the top of the list of registered hard-liner candidates was the present head of the judiciary, Ayatollah Ebrahim Raisi, known among some Iranians as the “Ayatollah of Death” because of his involvement in the mass executions of political prisoners in 1988 and his more recent ease in issuing of the death penalty. Raisi has an eye on succeeding Khamenei as supreme leader, but he is also said to be Khamenei’s choice from among the top clique to groom Khamenei’s son, Mojtaba Khamenei, to succeed him.

Notorious former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose disputed 2009 re-election sparked nationwide protests, also registered. Anticipating his fate, Ahmadinejad threatened that, should the Guardian Council reject his candidacy, he and his followers, mostly from among the poorest sections of the population, would boycott the elections altogether.

Of the so-called “reformers,” several key members also registered, some with superficially radical demands.

The Guardian Council assessed the hundreds of “eligible” candidates and eliminated most of them, including Ahmadinejad, the former speaker of the parliament, five generals of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards, and almost all the so-called reformist candidates, including the present vice-president.

It approved seven candidates. Most of them are hard-liners, including Ayatollah Raisi. A non-hard-liner, Abdolnaser Hemti, governor of the Central Bank, who resigned his post to run, is also on the approved list. Despite Iran’s financial mess and the free fall of the national currency under his watch, he may attract some votes.

All this points to the fact that Ayatollah Khamenei’s inner circle is getting ever smaller, and the Islamic regime is moving ever closer to a model of absolute “Islamic rule,” a sort of Shia caliphate envisioned by its founding leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, but which could not possibly have been implemented at the time of the Revolutioin due to robust demands from Iranian people for democracy.

In the absence of genuine democratic candidates, various liberal and left opposition groups have called for a boycott of the election. Hundreds of Iranian academics, physicians, lawyers, artists, and human rights activists outside Iran, including in Canada, have signed an open letter supported this call.

Ayatollah Khamenei’s inner circle is getting ever smaller, and the Islamic regime is moving ever closer to a model of absolute “Islamic rule,” a sort of Shia caliphate, envisioned by its founder.

These calls for a boycott are justified. The election serves only to give a veneer of respectability to a regime that doesn’t deserve it but should instead have its many failures highlighted and scrutinized. As pointed out in the letter by Iranian academics and professionals, these failures include: rampant corruption; squandering national wealth to help obscurantist Islamist groups in the region, a disastrous nuclear policy, suppressing all political dissent, imposing misogynist policies, imprisoning political and civil rights activists, the humiliation and suppression of ethnic, religious and sexual minorities; the suppression of workers’ and student movement, destroying the environment, isolating Iran internationally, sheer incompetence in handling the COVID-19 pandemic … and on and on it goes.

Facing colossal economic, political and social crises, the ayatollahs, backed by their Islamic Guards, wrongly assume that by increasing domestic repression, expanding their relations with Russia and China, and counting on America’s reluctance to engage in another war in the Middle East, they can overcome the multitude of crises they have created. They can’t. But by holding a charade of an election, the regime can pretend it has some sort of popular mandate. That’s why Iranians should have nothing to do with it.

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