CNN suggested that his last minute push for engagement from his would-be moderate and reformist supporters came in the form of speeches that seemed to strike an anti-establishment tone. However, the report also acknowledged the apparently disingenuous nature of this effort, seeing as Rouhani is a longstanding regime insider who developed a close relationship with Ali Khamenei in the 1980s, who is now the supreme leader of the Islamic Republic.
Rouhani’s lack of genuine anti-establishment credentials may serve to partly explain the lackluster support that he was expected to receive from his base just before the election, in which he is struggling to retain his seat for a second term, against hardline challenger Ebrahim Raisi. The Washington Post indicated that domestic polls had determined about half of Iranian citizens to have no preference, or at least no declared preference, going into the end of the campaign.
But natural disillusionment aside, some of this antipathy to both candidates is likely attributable to something that was missing from most of the mainstream Western reports on the final status of the Iranian electorate. The banned opposition group known as the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran has been hard at work organizing a mass boycott of the polls, in an effort to diminish the perception of the regime’s legitimacy, and to expose the fundamental lack of real alternatives within the Iranian political system.
The PMOI’s parent organization, the National Council of Resistance of Iran, had released videos and press statements in the weeks leading up to the election, both depicting and describing some of the grassroots action that had been taken by the group and its supporters to discourage Iranians from participating in what it has called “sham elections.” The campaign including the posting of images depicting the exiled PMOI leader Maryam Rajavi, as well as flyers, banners, and graffiti bearing slogans like “no to the murderer [Raisi]; no to the imposter [Rouhani]; my vote is for regime change.”
The description of Rouhani as an “imposter” apparently refers to the way in which he was embraced by various Western officials and a handful of Iranian reformists, who accepted descriptions of his 2013 election as a victory for “moderate pragmatism.” An Al Jazeera study of numerous regime officials’ public statements recently concluded that while Rouhani’s supposedly moderate faction did appeal to concrete promises more than to emotions and rhetoric, there was not much difference between that faction and the hardliners with regard to actual foreign policy priorities.
This general alignment of both factions was also highlighted by the above-mentioned Washington Post article. Although it characterized Ebrahim Raisi as the most radical choice of executive and the most fiercely loyal to Supreme Leader Khamenei, it also pointed out that even the “reformist” leader and Rouhani-backer Mohammad Khatami made a name for himself by proposing reformist-hardliner alignment against perceived outside threats from the United States and its allies.
Since its original conception, this plan has been referred to as “national reconciliation”, and Khamenei publicly rejected it in the run-up to the current presidential elections, in favor of ongoing efforts to secure more extensive hardline control over the system. Nevertheless, the limited differences between the two factions underscore the lack of choice, which regime opponents like the PMOI are trying to bring to the forefront of public consciousness.
Although it also failed to refer to the PMOI-led boycott, the Los Angeles Times was among the outlets to make reference to the “flagging enthusiasm” of Rouhani’s former supporters in days immediately before the election. It agreed with the Washington Post about Raisi’s more radical background – something that is also reflected in the PMOI’s description of him as a murderer. This primarily refers to his leading role in the 1988 massacre of political prisoners – something that the LA Times did call attention to. But the article also reported upon, and then undermined, Rouhani’s own claims that he has “honored his promises” for improvement of the Islamic Republic’s record on civil rights.
Critics have been pointing out since shortly after Rouhani took office that he has failed to live up to any major campaign promises with the exception of pursuing a nuclear agreement with foreign powers. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action was concluded in July 2015 and has reportedly contributed to the Iranian oil industry growing by seven percent in the past year. But as CNN notes, the economy itself has only grown by about one percent, and the Iranian people have seen little benefit from the deal. This is something that hardliners seized upon throughout the election campaign, and Rouhani’s efforts to compensate for those attacks through reference to his civil rights credentials have been met with skepticism or outright dismissal.
CNN quotes experts from the RAND Corporation and the Brookings Institution as saying that even if the president was interested in pushing back against hardline restrictions on citizens’ rights, he would still have extremely limited ability to act contrary to the will of the supreme leader. This fact should be evident to anyone who has been watching the election process and who is familiar with the vetting process by which genuinely reformist or “disloyal” candidates are barred from running for office.
The LA Times characterized this as part of the theocracy’s “heavy choreography” of the political process. And it is this that the PMOI boycott evidently attempted to undermine. Although the boycott was absent from various Western media, the supreme leader and other Iranian officials felt compelled to make public statements about it, urging Iranians to go to the polls and preserve the appearance of the regime’s legitimacy. With Khamenei promising a “slap in the face” to people who try to disrupt the election process, some of those statements demonstrated clear concern for the possibility of another popular uprising akin to that which followed the disputed reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2009.
This parallel was also on display in some of the public statements made by the Iranian Ministry of the Interior late in this year’s presidential campaign. Those comments also pointed to the possibility of even heavier “choreography” by the regime, possibly with the intent of assuring a predetermined outcome.
On Thursday, the Center for Human Rights in Iran published a report featuring contrasting quotations from Interior Ministry officials regarding whether the results of Friday’s election would be released gradually as they came in or all at once, after they have been certified by the Guardian Council and the Interior Ministry itself. Traditionally, incoming results are publicly updated in a way that is familiar to most modern democracies. But irregularities in this reporting in 2009 contributed to the perception that the result had been fixed by regime authorities.
If that was the case in 2009, the Interior Ministry’s internal debate could be indicative of plans to do the same in Friday’s elections. However, the pre-election polling data strongly suggests that much of the Iranian population would be disappointed with any electoral result that is certified by the existing theocratic system.