The first thing you need to know about Iran’s recent elections is that while they produced a new president, there are no real winners. “Engineered” – yes, an actual term in usage in Iran – to pave the way for an ayatollah-approved leadership succession, the polls have achieved what has long eluded the Islamic Republic’s foes: effective regime change in Tehran. Only, with hardliners now firmly in charge, it is not the type of change that many in the west had sought.
Reaching his twilight years, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has been looking for a successor. To the 82-year-old head of state, the ideal successor is a pliant loyalist who could emulate his own journey from the presidency to the top position in the land. On paper, this is precisely what is unfolding. However, as always, the devil is in the detail.
Ebrahim Raisi, who currently serves as chief justice, received almost 62% of votes on Friday. But the manner in which this feat was achieved leaves any “victory” pyrrhic, at best. Widely seen as the chief beneficiary of the Guardian Council’s elimination of all prominent moderates and reformists from the race, the extent of the candidate purge was such that Raisi himself is reported to have urged the watchdog to reconsider its decision. The picture gets even bleaker when considering that, as chief justice, Raisi in 2019 put forward several of the Guardian Council’s members to parliament for approval.
The concerns about the legitimacy of the race will no doubt come to haunt Raisi, especially given that the runner-up was not any of the other handpicked candidates. More than 12% of Iranian voters rather opted to cast invalid ballots – three times more than in any prior presidential election. This is all the more significant when considering that only two weeks prior to the polls, Khamenei issued a fatwa to denounce blank protest ballots as religiously impermissible.
The reformists are also major losers in this game. Only allowed one nominal candidate, the camp’s leaders instead half-heartedly attempted to mobilise a last-ditch surge behind Raisi’s sole competitor, Abdolnaser Hemmati, a toothless former central banker who ran on an independent platform. He came fourth, with just over 8% of votes.
This absence of competition ensured that for the first time, non-voters outnumbered voters in an Iranian presidential election. Only 28.9 million out of more than 59 million eligible voters cast ballots, a record-low turnout of 48.7%. The figure further drops to 42.5% when excluding invalid votes. In comparison, turnout was above 70% in the prior three presidential elections.
The unprecedented electoral boycott gains further significance when considering that the Islamic Republic has long heralded its polls as a litmus test of its legitimacy. And, crucially, the boycott this year was homegrown. So, what does all this portend for Iran and the world?
Only days before the elections, Raisi’s father-in-law, the hardline Friday prayer imam of the holy city of Mashhad, castigated those who refused to cast ballots with the intention of harming the political system as “infidels”. Powerful elements of the Iranian state harbour these sentiments because they ultimately view legitimacy as being derived from the divine and not the electorate. Now firmly in control of all levers of power, they owe their political ascendancy to the failures of Iran’s pro-democracy movement and the former US president Donald Trump.
The outgoing administration of Hassan Rouhani initially would not, and later could not, seriously pursue its ambitious agenda for the economy and the dire rights situation at home, focusing its energy on negotiating the 2015 nuclear deal, envisioned as the key to change. That bet unravelled when Trump unilaterally withdrew the US from the UN-endorsed accord in 2018. His reimposition of sanctions has decimated the pro-reform middle class in Iran and empowered radicals.
Those who “engineered” the Iranian elections have, in Raisi, an establishment candidate who will owe everything to Khamenei. The assumption is that this will guarantee greater coordination between the supreme leader and the president. Having failed to implement generational change, the reformists will now likely be in disarray over an extended period. Meanwhile, one can assume the emergence of more radical and young voices on the right, particularly as Raisi encounters the pragmatism imposed by his new office. These, as well as many other assumptions – including about the unwillingness of Iranian conservatives to engage with the US – will be tried and tested as Raisi enters office in early August.
Beyond the change in Iran’s political orientation, the choice of Raisi will also make it difficult for the west to engage with the Islamic Republic. The president-elect was closely associated with the mass executions of political prisoners in 1988, and Amnesty International has already called for a probe into his alleged role in crimes against humanity. Yet, given that the red carpet is commonly rolled out for other autocrats in the region, the prospect of serious western political engagement with a Raisi administration should not be discounted. It will probably only become harder.