The CNN article poses the question of whether the Iranian system is a democracy, and it answers that question with “yes or no.” It accepts that the forthcoming elections will conducted according to the general principles of democratic voting, but it also emphasizes that ultimate power of foreign and domestic power lies with the unelected supreme leader, who also personally appoints half of the Guardian Council, the body of judges and clerics that is empowered to disqualify legislation and candidates for high office if they are deemed to be out of step with the will of the supreme leader.
It is largely because of these latter factors that the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran has been striving to organize a mass boycott of the electoral process. The latest mainstream reports generally agree that approximately half of the country’s population will deliberately eschew voting, and the PMOI no doubt hopes to raise participation in the boycott even further before Friday. Activists for the banned dissident organization have reportedly risked arrest and torture by posting images of the exiled PMOI leader Mayram Rajavi in public places, along with slogans decrying both of the leading mainstream candidates and announcing a “vote for regime change.”
As of Tuesday, four candidates remained in the running for the presidency. Two of these are only minor candidates who may still drop out before Iranians actually go to the polls. Effectively, the race is between the two individuals who have been recognized for weeks as the sole frontrunners: the incumbent Hassan Rouhani and the hardline cleric Ebrahim Raisi, who has served as a judge but has not preexisting executive experience.
It is generally believed that Rouhani will win the contest, although many of his former reformist supporters have grown disillusioned with his administration as a result of his failure to move forward on any of his campaign promises regarding civil rights, diminished censorship, and so on. The CNN article agrees that he will likely win, but it adds that a major question on Friday will be whether people “still buy his moderate agenda.” The PMOI campaigns have referred to the sitting president as an imposter while calling Raisi a murderer because of his record of ordering the execution of political prisoners, including the thousands who were put to death in the summer of 1988 by the “death committee” on which Raisi served.
The 1988 massacre has become a topic of public discussion ahead of the election, although it has not been addressed by the candidates themselves. For much of the past three decades, the Iranian regime had refused to acknowledge the executions or the subsequent secret mass burials. But last year, Ahmad Montazeri, the son of the cleric who had once been in line to succeed Ruhollah Khomeini as the supreme leader of the Islamic Republic, released an audio recording of Hossein Ali Montazeri criticizing his fellow officials for their roles in the massacre. Although authorities attempted to suppress the recording soon after it was released, it quickly entered the public consciousness, partly because of the efforts of the PMOI to keep talking about it on social media and within activist circles.
Although public knowledge of the massacre reflects particularly badly on Raisi, it does not reflect well on Rouhani, who held a position of prominence in the regime at the time and who appointed another member of the death commission, Mostafa Pourmohammadi, as his Justice Minister after winning the presidency in 2013.
IranWire recently published an interview with Ahmad Montazeri, who was defrocked and initially sentenced to 21 years in prison for releasing the recording. With his sentence now suspended, Montazeri has expressed a clear preference for the reelection of the incumbent Rouhani. When asked to characterize the likely outcome of a Raisi victory, Montazeri said that virtually all presidential authority would be ceded to the military and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. By contrast, he told IranWire that a second Rouhani term would proceed in much the same manner as the first.
Of course, this is not nearly enough for serious advocates of reform. The New York Times reports that the Rouhani administration has suggested it would be better able to follow through on his former campaign promises if he won a resounding victory over Raisi. But in light of the past four years, former supporters have reason to believe that such a promise is nothing more than a bid for reformist support and, perhaps more importantly, voter participation that could undercut the PMOI-organized boycott.
Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has made several public statements calling upon the Iranian people to go to the polls in order to defend the perception of the regime’s legitimacy. But of course, this is precisely the reason why PMOI supporters and other opponents of the regime are interested in boycotting. Because of the power of the supreme leader and the role of the Guardian Council, there are no genuine reformist voices in Iranian politics.
Rouhani will be the closest thing to a moderate to be offered as a choice on Friday. Another candidate and current vice president, Eshagh Jahangiri, was arguably to the left of Rouhani. But as the BBC reported on Tuesday, Jahangiri was expected to withdraw from the race and finally did so. In a speech, he claimed that his truncated run had been intended to “make the voice of reformists” heard, but he then put his weight behind Rouhani’s bid for reelection.
Jahangiri’s participation up to this point was only made possible by his passing the Guardian Council vetting process – something that identifies him as an establishment politician who has never presented a serious challenge to the hardline principles of the Islamic Republic. In this sense, establishment “reformists” can be regarded as quite different from those advocating for reform on the ground in Iran. The distinction was highlighted for instance, in a blog post at IranWire which chided “reformist” politicians for complete silence on issues such as education and women’s rights.
The article pointed out that Supreme Leader Khamenei had recently taken aim at the UNESCO Education Action Plan, characterizing it as an example of Western cultural imposition, apparently because of its expectation of equal educational opportunity for men and women. The article went on to say that his intervention on this issue was both an expression of anti-Western paranoia and a “warning shot across Rouhani’s bows as we enter the homestretch of this election.” Voice of America News points out that Khamenei has become increasingly critical of Rouhani in other areas as well, even though he has not explicitly taken a side in the election. Meanwhile, IranWire finds that neither Rouhani himself nor the reformist politicians who are expected to back him have stood up against the supreme leader’s assault on things like nascent women’s rights.
This inaction stands in contrast to the “profound social changes” that IranWire says are taking place throughout Iran. “Young people are thinking for themselves, and steadily rejecting the rules of the religious regime,” the article says. “Young women are claiming their rights and insisting on being heard.” But these trends are apparently altogether separate from the more tepid trends within the reformist wing of Iranian politics. And this in turn goes a long way toward explaining the extent to which the Iranian population is signing onto the PMOI-organized boycott or otherwise sitting out the election.
The boycott almost certainly contributes to the uncertainty about the outcome of Friday’s election. Voice of America points out that the hardliners are resorting to economic populism and accusations that Rouhani has encouraged the influence of Western decadence, in an effort to get highly conservative citizens and politically disengaged rural voters to the polls. The BBC points out more specifically that Raisi has promised to triple the value of government handouts, even as he presents a challenge to the potential Western investment that might inject more capital into the Iranian economy.
On Monday, a day before Eshagh Jahangiri exited the race, the second leading hardline candidate did the same. Tehran Mayor Mohammad Qalibaf has now placed his support behind Raisi, and there is an open question as to what the effect of this development will be in the coming days. Some polls had previously found that Raisi and Qalibaf were collectively supported by 50 percent of likely voters, compared to Rouhani’s 42 percent. But it is by no means certain what the new figures will be now that Qalibaf is out of the running.
It seems that either of the leading candidate could win on Friday, and the different outcomes would have different consequences in terms of certain strategic policies, particularly the long term prospects for the nuclear agreement between Iran and six world powers. But in spite of these modest differences, the PMOI boycott and general public discourse continues to emphasize the country’s poor prospects for major policy changes in such a tightly controlled system.