June 16, 2024

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After Raisi’s death, the elections pose a difficult test for Iran’s rulers

After Raisi’s death, the elections pose a difficult test for Iran’s rulers

For decades, Iran’s leaders have been able to point to high voter turnout in their elections as evidence of the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic’s political system. But with voter turnout declining in recent years, the elections they will now have to hold after the death of President Ibrahim Raisi will force the political establishment to make a decision it does not want to make.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the country’s supreme leader, has two options, each of which carries risks.

He can ensure that presidential elections, which the constitution stipulates must be held within 50 days after Mr. Raisi’s death, are open to everyone, from hardliners to reformists. But this risks competitive elections that could take the country in a direction he does not want.

Or he could repeat the strategy he followed in the last elections, and prevent not only reformist competitors, but even moderate and loyal opposition figures. The choice could see him face the embarrassment of low voter turnout, a move that could be interpreted as a stinging rebuke to his increasingly authoritarian state.

Voter turnout in Iran has been on a downward trajectory in the past few years. In 2016, more than 60% of the country’s voters participated in the parliamentary elections. By 2020, the number had reached 42 percent. Officials had promised the March score would be higher, but instead came in at just under 41 percent.

Just a week before Raisi’s death, the final round of parliamentary elections in Tehran received just 8% of the possible votes, a staggering number in a country where Khamenei once mocked Western democracies for their 30% to 40% voter turnout.

“Khamenei has had a golden opportunity to easily, and in a face-saving manner, allow people into the political process — if he chooses to seize this opportunity,” said Mohammad Ali Shaabani, an Iranian political analyst and editor-in-chief of Amwaj newspaper. An independent news media outlet. He added: “Unfortunately, what has happened in the past few years indicates that he will not go down that path.”

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Iran is a theocracy with a parallel system of government, where elected bodies are supervised by appointed councils. The state’s main policies regarding nuclear, military, and foreign affairs are determined by Ayatollah Khamenei and the Supreme National Security Council, while the Revolutionary Guard works to increase its influence over the economy and politics.

The president’s role is limited to domestic policy and economic affairs, but he remains an influential position.

The elections also remain an important test of public sentiment. The decline in turnout in recent years is seen as a clear sign of the tense mood towards the clergy and a political establishment that has become increasingly hardline and conservative.

“For the regime, this distance — this disconnect between state and society — represents a serious problem,” said Sanam Vakil, director of the Middle East and North Africa program at Chatham House, a London-based think tank. “What they want is to contain conservative unity, but it is difficult to fill a key position.”

Mr. Raisi, a cleric who served for years in the judiciary and participated in some of the most brutal repressions in the country’s history, was a staunch loyalist to Mr. Khamenei and his worldview.

A loyal supporter of theocracy in Iran, Raisi has long been viewed as a potential successor to the supreme leader — despite, or perhaps because of, his lack of a strong personality that would pose a danger to Khamenei. Now, with no clear candidate to support, Khamenei may face infighting within his conservative base.

“Raisi was a yes-man, and he didn’t like it was kind of the point,” said Arash Azizi, an Iran-focused historian who lectures at Clemson University in South Carolina. “The political establishment includes many people with serious financial and political interests. “There will be competition for power.”

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The candidates allowed to run will be an indication of the type of path the Supreme Leader wants to take.

Mohammad Baqir Qalibaf, a pragmatic technocrat, speaker of parliament and one of the country’s perennial presidential candidates, is likely to try to run. But Azizi said his performance in parliament in recent years had been poorly evaluated. Parliament has done little to help resolve Iran’s economic crisis, and Ghalibaf, despite describing himself as an advocate for Iran’s poor, sparked national outrage in 2022 over reports that his family went on a shopping spree in Turkey.

Potential rivals include Saeed Jalili, a former Revolutionary Guard fighter turned nuclear negotiator who is seen as a hardline loyalist to Mr. Khamenei. Azizi said that his nomination would not bode well regarding possible engagement with the West.

In every recent election in Iran, Mr. Khamenei has demonstrated his willingness to eliminate any reformist or even moderate candidate perceived as a loyal opposition. The results were clear: In 2021, Raisi won the lowest turnout ever in a presidential election, at 48%. By contrast, more than 70% of Iran’s 56 million eligible voters cast ballots when President Hassan Rouhani was elected in 2017.

So far, there is no indication that Iran’s political establishment will change course.

“It is a regime that is moving away from its republican roots and becoming more authoritarian,” Ms. Vakil said, adding of Mr. Khamenei: “As long as he is comfortable with repressive control, and the elite maintains its unity, there is no need to worry.” “We expect to see change.”

Elie Geranmayeh, an Iran analyst at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said what was likely to deter Khamenei from widening the race was his choice of leadership that could ensure a smooth and stable transition when choosing a new supreme leader. Khamenei is 85 years old and suffers from weak health.

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However, Mr. Khamenei has equally compelling reasons to consider opening up to moderates. Under Mr. Raisi, the country faced a series of dramatic upheavals, with the economy collapsing and unemployment rising. The violent repression of anti-government protests that broke out in 2021 after the death in custody of a young woman accused of wearing the hijab inappropriately has left a large part of the population disillusioned.

While it seemed unlikely that Mr Khamenei would change course, Ms Geranmayeh said: “The regime in Iran has the ability to surprise itself.”

Former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, although a known hardliner, surprised the political establishment with his populist personality.

Rouhani, a moderate within the regime, surprised many with his attempts to open up to the West economically, and succeeded in reaching a nuclear agreement before it was blocked by Donald J. Trump, the president of the United States at the time.

However, there is no clear moderate to enter the race, and even if he did, there is no certainty how the public would react.

“It’s a big question whether people will come out and vote, because there has been a great deal of disappointment,” Ms. Jeranmayeh said.

In a country whose leaders came to power on the back of a popular revolution — and where anti-government protests have already forced the government to unleash a repressive response to stop them — the long-term danger is clear, said Mr. Chabani, the political figure. analyst.

“If people stop believing in change through the ballot box, there is only one other option,” he said.