June 21, 2021

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Iran election: Regime’s crisis of confidence undercuts democracy

Iran’s presidential election next week comes at an especially challenging time for the Islamic Republic. Economic hardship has prompted lethal street protests; hopelessness about the future is pervasive, and voter apathy widespread; and campaigns to boycott the election have taken root.

Trending on Twitter is the hashtag in Persian: #NoWayIVote.

With the regime’s popular legitimacy appearing in the balance, the result has been a crisis of confidence among conservative power brokers and an unprecedented lurch away from democratic practices toward more autocratic methods.

Analysts warn these measures are likely only to further alienate voters across Iran’s political spectrum on election day, June 18.

The first sign that this election would be like no other came when the powerful Guardian Council announced the shortlist of vetted candidates.

Ensuring that the candidacy of hard-line judiciary chief Ebrahim Raisi – a midranking and uncharismatic cleric who lost the last election – will be virtually uncontested, the council rejected well-known centrists, reformists, and most other conservatives.

Even some hard-liners were shocked by this brazen attempt to engineer the result, which appeared to upend the tense balance that has prevailed for decades between “Islamic” theocratic rule and “Republic” democratic aspects of the state.

The Guardian Council, a 12-member body that oversees elections and can override decisions by parliament, has often been criticized for overzealous vetting, especially of reformist candidates. But this is the first time it has shaped an outcome so clearly.

“I have never found the Council’s decisions to be this unjustifiable,” lamented Sadegh Larijani, a veteran member of the council and former judiciary chief. Alluding to the intelligence arm of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), a key tool of hard-line power, he complained on Twitter of “growing interference by intelligence agencies” and their “intentional manipulation” of the late May decision to anoint Mr. Raisi.

Appalled, he said, “In the midst of these strange times, I seek refuge in God.”

The second extraordinary sign is officialdom’s relative indifference to voter turnout – a metric portrayed in every vote since the 1979 Islamic Revolution as crucial proof of enduring popular support.

Little is being done to combat the apathy and boycott campaigns, as if that public vote of confidence were no longer necessary – or achievable.

“The elections are going to drastically erode the regime’s legitimacy,” says Ervand Abrahamian, a preeminent historian of modern Iran and retired professor at the City University of New York.

“For the last four decades, the main form of legitimacy has been high participation of the people in elections, with sometimes 80% turnout,” says Professor Abrahamian. “Anything lower than 50% has been considered a vote of no confidence.”

Recent polls put likely turnout at less than 40% – possibly less.

Behind the choice of Raisi

Amid a sense of decline and deepening unpopularity, analysts say the choice of Mr. Raisi – and the way in which the Islamic Republic’s so-called deep state has made that choice – speaks volumes about the rising levels of anxiety among Iran’s leaders.

The stakes are especially high today with no clear successor to supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, now 82 years old.

Mr. Raisi may be seen as a trusted pair of hands, and is even tipped by some as a potential next supreme leader, though his religious credentials are weak. Among other senior positions, the current judiciary chief has served as custodian of the Imam Reza shrine apparatus in Mashhad.

Yet Mr. Raisi is bedeviled by his role on a four-man, inquisition-style “death commission” in Tehran that oversaw the execution of thousands of prisoners in 1988 – a “medieval background” that Professor Abrahamian says “would further erode the regime’s legitimacy” were he to be elected president.

Mr. Raisi was handily beaten in 2017 by incumbent President Hassan Rouhani, a centrist whose plans to reach out to the West, improve the economy, and increase social freedoms engendered hope – and a high turnout – in the two elections he won.

Iranians’ hopes surged with the 2015 landmark nuclear deal with world powers, but collapsed in 2018 when the United States withdrew from the deal and imposed “maximum pressure” sanctions.

Narrowing the choice to Mr. Raisi “is so self-destructive,” says Professor Abrahamian. “If you can no longer give someone like Rouhani to run against the conservatives, then who’s going to really vote, except for the true believers in Raisi?”

Redefining democracy?

The shift toward a noncompetitive race heralds an effort by some hard-liners to redefine “democracy” in Iran, since multiple victories for reformists, starting with the 1997 election of Mohammad Khatami, clearly show their popularity.

“We have a problem that began with the Khatami presidency,” the archconservative strategist Hassan Abbasi told Iranian media. “We embraced the Western democratic model for the election process. … That was a mistake.

“The United Arab Emirates does not hold any election; aren’t the people living with less headaches?” he said of that Persian Gulf monarchy. “There is no election in Oman. … None in Turkmenistan. … All those people are living with less headaches, aren’t they?”

That argument has been taking hold among pro-regime elements fearful that they will lose power for good if a non-hardliner wins again, says a well-connected Iranian analyst who travels often to Iran and requested anonymity.

“I would use the headline that, ‘This is the deep state’s attempt to take over,’” says the analyst, who defines the deep state as including certain figures in the supreme leader’s office, key hard-line clerics and lawmakers, parts of the judiciary and state media, and IRGC intelligence.

The lesson of 2017

The turning point for them was the 2017 election, when hard-line and moderate conservative forces – and all their media – backed Mr. Raisi, yet he still lost by 8 million votes.

The loss “was the ultimate lesson that … they won’t win in a truly competitive election,” says the analyst. “So if they want to turn things in their favor, they will have to tighten the political space up to a degree that brings their own guy out of the ballot box.”

“For them, Syria-type elections, Russia-type elections, they like that,” says the analyst. “They still really think, ‘We need some sort of popular backing,’ but to them it’s enough if there is a clear result in the end,” such as 70% for Mr. Raisi – even if that 70% is just 11 million votes, out of 59 million eligible voters.

Indeed, a low turnout would indicate a desire to “punish the Islamic Republic,” Iranian journalist Fereshteh Sadeghi in Tehran told a Johns Hopkins University webinar Tuesday. “It doesn’t necessarily mean that we want to topple you. … We just want to say, ‘OK, you don’t care about us; we don’t care about you.’”

The attempt to shrink the democratic space has also prompted debate among conservative factions weaned on the dual Islamic and Republic aspects introduced by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who stressed that people “are the lords of the ruling elite.”

Many hard-line camps “were really angry and have continued to be angry at this restricted choice because … they do believe in the republican nature of the system and that requires votes and elections,” says Narges Bajoghli, an expert at Johns Hopkins University who closely follows conservative discourse in Iran.

“They are trying their hardest to keep the reformists from coming to power, but they don’t want to do that through the process that’s been coming about these past few weeks, because that takes away all claims of legitimacy,” says Ms. Bajoghli, author of “Iran Reframed: Anxieties of Power in the Islamic Republic.”

Internal versus external

She notes the irony that Iran’s external strategies are succeeding in countering American and Israeli influence, through an Iran-led “axis of resistance” from Gaza and Syria to Iraq and Yemen. Yet at home the forces that orchestrate and support those “victories” struggle to win a free election.

“Regionally they are very strong. Internally, they’re very unpopular across much of the population,” says Ms. Bajoghli.

That has prompted a potentially dangerous miscalculation, says Professor Abrahamian.

“The rational thing to do when things go wrong is try to open up, to get more public support. But if you narrow yourself down, it’s just alienating more people,” he says.

“I think the most important thing is the question of legitimacy, and if they don’t have that legitimacy, all they are going to have is a raw power of terror [that] puts the balance of power much more in the hands of the Revolutionary Guard,” he adds.

And in that push away from democratic mechanisms, Iran has many examples.

“We’ve seen, not just across the region, but across the globe, states are willing to completely militarize the streets in an attempt to silence or at least push back protest movements, and Iran is part of that trend,” says Ms. Bajoghli. “I think their calculation is, ‘It’s worked in all these places. It’ll work for us.’”

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Original News : https://news.yahoo.com/iran-election-regime-crisis-confidence-133909735.html

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