The BBC’s initial reporting indicated that the polling hours had been extended on three occasions over the course of the evening, supposedly in response to long lines of people who had not yet been able to cast their ballots. But the Paris-based opposition coalition the National Council of Resistance of Iran drew upon intelligence networks inside of Iran to disseminate images apparently showing empty polling places throughout the country.
The BBC also noted that Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei had used the last day of the presidential campaign to reiterate comments he had made several times in recent weeks, urging all Iranians to participate in the election process in order to safeguard the “legitimacy” of the theocratic regime. Some of these public statements included veiled references to a campaign by the NCRI’s main constituent group, the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran, to encourage people to boycott the election.
In the run-up to that election, PMOI supporters in Iran posted posters and graffiti in various public places dismissing Raisi as a “murderer” and Rouhani as an “imposter” and expressing the intention to “vote for regime change.” At the same time, activists and commentators both inside Iran and among the Iranian expatriate community contributed to the political dialogue about the election, using social media applications like Telegram, which may be in use by as much as half the population in spite of authorities’ attempts to crack down on it.
It is virtually impossible to know how many potential voters the PMOI and its supporters reached by these and other means in advance of Friday’s election. But what is known is that domestic polling data from earlier in the week continued to indicate that upwards of half the country had no clear preference for one candidate or the other, and thus might not vote at all. Nevertheless, the Iranian regime announced on Friday night that approximately 70 percent of eligible voters had gone to the polls.
Shortly before that announcement, however, the NCRI had drawn attention to the fact that Iranian state media was reporting only about 35 percent turnout even after polls had been open for nearly nine hours. In this context, it can be argued that the regime’s decision to repeatedly extend polling hours was done not in order to accommodate preexisting demands for participation but to drum up additional numbers through coercion, fraud, or other means.
The NCRI also strove to account for what some of these means would have been. The opposition movement found that inmates in more than one prison had been told that their participation in the electoral process was mandatory. In some cases, prisoners were reportedly threatened with a month-long ban on family visits if they refused to cast their ballots. Additionally, the NCRI alleges that members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps voted once on their bases and once in their local communities, that ballots were cast in the names of deceased voters, and that duplicate identification forms had been created to facilitate multiple voting by persons the regime recruited.
Whatever accounts for the massive uptick in supposed electoral participation in the late hours of the voting, the result is certainly convenient for the supreme leader and his supporters. The BBC quoted Khamenei as saying, “American, European officials and those of the Zionist regime are watching our elections to see the level of participation. The Iranian nation has enemies. Faced with the enemy, the people should show its determination and calm.”
The supreme leader went on to repeat his earlier threats against anyone who “disrupted security” in the midst of the elections. Such commentary was widely recognized as a reference to the 2009 Green Movement, which emerged out of disputes over the legitimacy of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s reelection and which went on for several months before being violently suppressed.
Rouhani’s election four years later was regarded by some Western policymakers as a partial vindication of the Green Movement, in light of his surprise, last minute victory and his campaign promises regarding the lifting of some social restrictions and the freeing of political prisoners including the Green Movement leaders. However, widespread disappointment met the Rouhani administration soon after he took office, as he failed to take any notable steps in the direction of fulfilling those promises.
Notwithstanding his Rouhani’s successful pursuit of a nuclear agreement, this disappointment remained on display in the pre-election polling this year, and the Iranian Resistance evidently sought to utilize it in promoting the electoral boycott. The persistence of moderate and reformist disillusionment was on display in the commentary shared with international media by some pro-reform voters who participated in the election rather than the boycott.
“I know he is not a reformist, but who cares?” said one government employee of Rouhani, when interviewed by Reuters. “What matters is that he is not Raisi.” On Thursday, the Washington Post described the hardline candidate as the most radical possible choice, and also the most fiercely loyal to the supreme leader. But this is not to say that Rouhani has ever openly challenged the supreme leader or that he is likely to do so in his second term. Khamenei has expressed some distaste for Rouhani’s signature achievement, the nuclear deal with six world powers, but the negotiations over that agreement only went on with the explicit blessing of Supreme Leader Khamenei, the ultimate authority in all matters of state.
Reuters pointed out on Friday that Rouhani had attempted to bolster reformist talking points in the weeks leading up to the election, in order to make himself appear less like the regime insider and loyalist that he historically has been. Some observers seem to think that this may have succeeded in diminishing reformist aversion to voting for him a second time. But even if this is the case, the PMOI and NCRI will certainly characterize such efforts as part of a regime-wide conspiracy to mask the fundamental lack of choice that props up the clerical regime.