Iran's Election: A Tug of War Between Loyalty and Reform

Iran's upcoming presidential election is marked by voter apathy and high stakes, as Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei pushes for massive turnout amid an election dominated by his loyalists.

Published June 26, 2024 - 00:06am

5 minutes read
Iran, Islamic Republic of

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Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has urged citizens to participate in the upcoming presidential election to counter perceived external threats and navigate a critical period for the nation. This call for high voter turnout comes in the wake of the sudden death of hard-line President Ebrahim Raisi in a helicopter crash in May, which has reshaped the political landscape.

Speaking during the Shiite holiday of Eid al-Ghadir, Khamenei emphasized the importance of 'maximum' turnout to overcome what he described as 'the enemy,' a veiled reference to the United States and its allies. His remarks aimed to galvanize support for the election, which will determine Raisi's successor and potentially influence the succession of the 85-year-old Khamenei himself.

Khamenei's speech drew fervent chants of 'Death to America! Death to Israel!' from the crowd, underscoring the regime's enduring anti-Western stance. The call for unity and resistance against foreign adversaries is especially significant given the escalating regional tensions, Iran's advancing nuclear program, and mounting domestic discontent.

The political context of this election is complex. The Guardian Council, a hard-line vetting body of clerics and jurists aligned with Khamenei, has approved five hard-line candidates and one moderate from an initial pool of 80. Prominent among the hard-liners are Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, parliament speaker and former head of the Revolutionary Guards, and Saeed Jalili, a former nuclear negotiator. The sole moderate candidate, Masoud Pezeshkian, has the backing of Iran's reformist camp.

Pezeshkian's candidacy, despite being moderate, still pledges loyalty to Khamenei. His campaign has attracted significant attention, drawing large crowds in Tehran and other cities. His approach, marked by calls for nationalism over religious fervor and symbols reminiscent of past reformist movements, aims to engage millions of disillusioned young voters who have abstained from recent elections.

The looming election comes after a recent parliamentary vote that saw record-low turnout, highlighting widespread voter apathy and disenchantment. Many Iranians are skeptical about the election's integrity, viewing it as a controlled and stage-managed event. The regime's historical pattern of disqualifying moderate candidates and stifling competition has only deepened this skepticism.

The strategic use of elections in Iran's theocratic system serves multiple purposes. Internally, it provides a mechanism for the regime to manage factional disputes and maintain a semblance of democratic norms. Externally, it projects an image of legitimacy and political stability. However, these elections are frequently criticized as mere formalities designed to reinforce the regime's power.

Khamenei's directive for high turnout is an attempt to legitimize his rule and reinforce the Islamic Republic's ideological foundations. In addition to addressing internal dissent, the election outcome will have significant implications for Iran's foreign policy and regional dynamics. Khamenei and his hard-line supporters view the election as a means to consolidate their grip on power and prepare for a seamless leadership transition.

The death of Raisi, considered a potential successor to Khamenei, has intensified the competition among hard-liners. The supreme leader's adviser, Yahya Rahim Safavi, has urged voters to elect a president whose views align with Khamenei's, reinforcing the narrative of continuity and stability. This aligns with Khamenei's broader strategy of ensuring that loyalty to the revolution and the Islamic system remains unchallenged.

Despite the controlled nature of the elections, the socio-economic challenges facing Iran cannot be ignored. The country is grappling with a crushed economy due to Western sanctions, high unemployment, and widespread dissatisfaction with living standards. These issues have sparked multiple waves of protests, most notably following the 2022 death of Mahsa Amini and the ongoing women's rights movement against mandatory hijab laws.

Voter turnout also becomes a contentious issue as prominent reformist politicians warn that low participation will cement hard-liner control over the state. However, many Iranian dissidents both domestically and abroad advocate for an election boycott. Imprisoned Nobel laureate Narges Mohammadi decried the vote as a 'sham,' emphasizing the regime's reliance on repression to maintain power.

This election also comes at a time when the region is witnessing increased conflict and instability. The Israel-Hamas conflict and continued Western pressure on Iran's nuclear activities add layers of complexity to the election's significance. The next president will not only have to address internal factionalism but also navigate these external challenges.

In conclusion, Iran's upcoming presidential election is a critical event with far-reaching implications. While the electoral process remains tightly controlled, the high stakes surrounding voter turnout, leadership succession, and regional dynamics cannot be understated. Khamenei's call for maximum participation is a bid to solidify the regime's legitimacy amidst growing internal and external pressures.


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