The recent presidential election in Iran led to record low turnout of only 48%, pointing to wider issues of growing autocratic rule and an indifferent voting electorate.
If more proof was needed to show the crumbling state of democracy in Iran, the most recent presidential election showed just how close Iran is to completely abandoning their already flawed democracy. On Friday, voters were asked to choose a new President, replacing former President Hassan Rouhani, who was ineligible to vote due to constitutional term limits. In total seven candidates were approved by the Guardian Council (a powerful assembly of 12 members, made up of six religious clerics and six jurists who are charged with interpreting the Constitution of Iran) to run in the election. At the time the polls opened, three of these candidates had withdrawn from the election, leaving only four legal candidates. Among these four, the clear favorite, endorsed by many powerful Iranians including the Ayatollah Khamenei, was Ebrahim Raisi. Mr. Raisi has been not only heavily involved in Iranian politics and the Iranian judiciary system for many years, he was also appointed to the influential role of Judiciary Chief of Iran in 2019, an appointment made directly by the Ayatollah himself. In total, Mr. Raisi finished with approximately 62% of the vote in preliminary results. His closest challenger received only 12% of the vote.
Although many within the higher Iranian governmental hierarchy, including the Ayatollah, encouraged voters to go to the polls, the turnout for this election was the lowest in the Islamic Republic’s history, coming in at only 48%, according to a preliminary count. The extremely low turnout can be blamed on a variety of factors, including a perceived lack of choice, crumbling democratic values, restrictions on individual human rights, and a boycott of the election by varying groups both domestically and internationally. Many Iranians, particularly younger voters, expressed a mixture of discontent and indifference when interviewed by international media outlets such as BBC and Reuters about their choice to not vote in the election. Since the beginning of the current Islamic Republic, Iranian political officials have been keen to stress the “Republican” values of the country, particularly free and fair elections. In reality, the Supreme Leader and his Council have gained a continually tighter grip on power in the country, and in fact nearly all decisions regarding both domestic and foreign policy must earn the assent of the Ayatollah before being enacted into law. According to the independent democratic watchdog group Freedom House, Iran scored a 16/100 on their annual ratings of democratic institutions around the world, labeling Iran as “Not Free”.
Although his name may not be known to many outside of Iran, Ebrahim Raisi has played a central role in both the judiciary and security sectors of Iranian politics. He was even sanctioned by the United States in 2019 for numerous human rights violations. As of right now, the White House has not commented if it will push to continue these sanctions against him, as the USA generally avoids sanctioning Heads of State. Mr. Raisi, according to Reuters, was sanctioned over his role in the mass executions of political prisoners in 1988 and the violent suppression of protests in 2009. Mr. Raisi has never publicly acknowledged his role in these events, and the Secretary General of human rights group Amnesty International, Agnès Callamard, responded to Mr. Raisi’s electoral victory by saying that his victory is “a grim reminder that impunity reigns supreme in Iran.” Mr. Raisi released a statement shortly after his win, thanking the Iranian people and promising to “form a hard-working, revolutionary and anti-corruption government.” He will be faced with numerous issues both domestically and internationally, most notably a stagnating economy, a discontent young population, and a rapidly crumbling nuclear deal with the West.
Although some of Iran’s allies in the region including Syrian President Bashar-al-Assad and the Secretary General of recognized terrorist group Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, congratulated Mr. Raisi on his victory, the United States and Israel were quick to denounce the election as not free or fair and expressed concern over Mr. Raisi’s previous activities in the state security sector.
With the President of Iran holding very little true power in the country, it is unlikely that any drastic changes will occur in the course of Iran’s domestic or international policies, but an increasingly unhappy population mixed with a struggling economy may provide some changes to a country which finds itself increasingly isolated in both regional and international spheres.