Furthermore, those long lines were widely broadcast on state television networks, most of which had also conveyed Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s statements urging a high turnout and declaring that such a result would “disappoint our enemies.” Reuters pointed out in another report that these remarks were in reference to Khamenei’s earlier claims about foreign attempts to “infiltrate” and influence the elections.
Other hardliners had joined in conveying these vague warnings, as well, and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps had backed them up with the further expansion of high profile arrests of Iranians with ties to the West. IranWire reported on Friday that the IRGC had effectively acknowledged these intentions via Fars News Agency, saying that this week’s arrest of 80 year-old Baquer Namazi was carried out “to uncover the complex layers of vast financial and intelligence corruption by a network that is associated to the UK and to America.”
No solid evidence of such a network has ever been presented, and Khamenei and others have declared at various times that the “infiltration” is such that its own agents may not even know they are a part of it. Nevertheless, Khamenei’s statements on and immediately preceding election day point to the intention to utilize this narrative to present high voter turnout as a victory for hardliners, insofar as it represents defiance of the West.
The Comment reported upon Khamenei’s further commentary, noting that he said, “The extensive presence of people in the elections makes the country stronger.” In fact, this sort of reference to the domestic and international strength of the Islamic Republic became a common talking point in Iranian state media. For instance, France 24 reported that the Tehran Times had run a feature on Friday outlining the editorial staff’s assessment of the geopolitical strength of the Iranian nation.
While this has little to do with the elections themselves, it contributes to nationalist rhetoric that will presumably be used in the wake of the elections to boost morale among the regime’s hardliner supporters, regardless of the actual outcome of the voting. In its roundup of domestic media coverage of the elections, IranWire also acknowledged the prevalence of this narrative, saying that state media “has hailed today’s elections as proof of the country’s power, influence and independence, calling the high voter turnout a testament to the strength and the ‘true image’ of Islamic democracy.”
But this conspicuous overlap between the regime’s propaganda and the notion of high voter turnout has contributed to skepticism about the veracity of reports of the latter. In the days leading up to the elections, the National Council of Resistance of Iran released reports on Iranian elections which highlighted the use of several tactics in past elections to boost the perception of participation in what is a highly constrained democratic process.
NCRI activists who have monitored polling places in the past have found that members of the hardline Basij militia have traveled from one polling place to another to stuff ballot boxes, while state media had staged scenes at key polling places with long, artificial lines of voters. International press has tended to be specifically directed to these polling places, resulting in their carrying many of the same images as are broadcast by Iranian state television.
This claim of stage-managing at some polling places is arguably supported by the fact that, according to IranWire, a New York Times journalist who had been observing Friday’s elections reported “mixed turnout,” which much less participation in such areas as southern Tehran, far away from the polling places that were highlighted by Iranian media.
The importance attached to high turnout by Khamenei and other Iranian officials indicates that the regime certainly had incentive to inflate the actual number of voters. And the NCRI’s reports state that the regime has a history of so doing. Furthermore, the regime’s claim to the “true image of Islamic democracy” is arguably more important than ever in the wake of the 2009 Green Movement and last summer’s nuclear agreement, which created limited openings with fully democratic countries in the West.
Despite the roll of current President Hassan Rouhani in spearheading that agreement, Iran’s domestic freedoms have reportedly seen no noticeably improvement, as indicated by the Baquer Namazi arrest and the removal of the vast majority of so called reformist candidates form the electoral ballot through vetting by the Guardian Council.
In this environment, it is in Rouhani’s interest, as well as Khamenei’s, to encourage the perception of a legitimate and popular election. And indeed, in the days and weeks leading up to the polls, Rouhani had joined in urging every Iranian to vote. Those who showed up and voted for “moderates” and “reformists” will be seen as having endorsed the Rouhani administration. And indeed, some did this explicitly in quotations to the media.
CNN quoted several voters on Election Day, some expressing support for hardliners and referring to the “blood of martyrs,” and others saying that they believe Iran has a “good future” and that there has been “lots of good change” since Rouhani’s election in 2013. But of course these quotations only convey the views of those who did choose to support the elections. And reports from earlier in the week indicated that a number of young Iranians had gone on record as being committed to eschewing the process out of the belief that there was no prospect for real change.
Much of this sentiment is based on Rouhani’s record over the past two and a half years, which has lost him support among many of those who helped carry him into office amidst promises of a freer and more open Iranian society. The persistence of politically motivated arrests and strict control over the electoral process is a partial indicator of the lack of progress in this respect.
These things have also been cited by the NCRI and other critics of the regime as evidence of general alignment between the Rouhani and Khamenei factions, notwithstanding their apparent disagreements over the nuclear agreement with the West.
France 24 also pointed out on Friday that this situation had been highlighted by an editorial that appeared in a Lebanese newspaper and claimed that Rouhani and Khamenei were both hoping for no real change in the balance of power after Friday, since the current status of hardliners and so-called reformists has contributed to a political balance that preserves the regime’s institutions without putting them too much at odds with the international community.
This goes to show that it is not just opposition groups like the NCRI that have voiced doubts about the significance of reports of high voter turnouts, and of the elections themselves. In fact, another editorial in Al Arabiya criticized the international media’s coverage of those elections as being prone to error and an excess of optimism. The article went on to say, “Depicting the outcome of the current Iranian elections as the dominant and controlling factor in shaping and determining Iran’s leadership [and] domestic and foreign policies not only fails to grasp the complexities and nuances of Iran’s social, political, and economic establishments, but also points to the predominant misconceptions, oversimplifications, hype and lack of knowledge about Iran.