Candidates for the Iranian presidential elections have always been strictly controlled and those deemed insufficiently loyal to the Islamic revolution have been disqualified. Within those limits, contenders had divergent views on easing national restrictions or on relations with the West, and sometimes the winner was even a surprise.
Now even the minor differences that give voters a semblance of choice seem to have been erased.
Candidates in the election scheduled for June 18 either take deeply conservative positions aligned with those of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, or are little known, lacking in an electoral base and no chance of winning.
And one candidate in particular is in the lead: Ebrahim Raisi, the current head of the judiciary, appointed by Mr. Khamenei, who has a long history of involvement in Human rights abuse, and who lost in 2017 in a surprise victory for outgoing president Hassan Rohani.
With no credible challenger, Mr Raisi is expected to win this time around. All serious competition has been winnowed from the race. Even some members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, known for their strong hostility to any political dissent, called the election undemocratic.
The Council of Guardians, a 12-person body responsible for approving candidates, disqualified anyone who would risk shifting the vote against Mr. Raisi, who, as a prosecutor and judge, oversaw the executions of minors and dissidents.
On Thursday, Mr. Khamenei publicly endorsed the Council of Guardians’ final decision. He said council members had done their duty and called on the public to “don’t listen to anyone say it’s useless, don’t go to the polls, we won’t go.”
The council’s decision and its approval by Mr. Khamenei shook political circles. The Reform Party announced for the first time that it did not have a candidate in the race.
Analysts say Mr Raisi’s presidency would finalize a current years plan for the Tories to consolidate power, take control of all branches of government, marginalize any reform faction and severely restrict internal power struggles within the government. the Islamic Republic.
“Today we are witnessing a shameless attack on any semblance of Republican principles in favor of the supreme leader’s absolute power,” said Abbas Milani, director of Iranian studies at Stanford University.
The emergence of an artificial victory for Mr Raisi, 60, sparked stronger and broader calls for an election boycott and increased voter apathy among ordinary Iranians. Polls predict a low turnout. The most recent survey conducted this week by the student voting agency, ISPA, showed that only 37% of voters want to vote.
With Mr Khamenei’s allies already in control of parliament and the judiciary, taking the presidency could reshape ongoing negotiations on how to revive the 2015 nuclear deal.
President Donald Trump renounced the pact three years ago in what he called a “maximum pressure” campaign to get more concessions from Iran, but his policies appear to have only strengthened the extremists .
President Biden wants to seek a broader deal with Iran that would limit not only its nuclear program, but also its missile development and involvement in conflicts around the region. But Mr. Raisi and his faction oppose making concessions to the West.
What has particularly surprised political circles in Iran is the disqualification by the Guardian Council of prominent political figures such as Ali Larijani, a centrist conservative and former speaker of parliament, and the current vice-president, Eshaq Jahangiri, considered a reformist very close to Mr. Rouhani. .
Mr. Larijani comes from a very important political family and was appointed by Mr. Khamenei to lead the negotiations for a 25-year economic agreement between Iran and China. Mr Larijani was seen as a candidate likely to attract Reform votes.
While a former president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and a former government minister, Mostafa Tajzadeh, the main reformist candidate, were also disqualified, their withdrawal from the race came as no surprise. Mr. Ahmadinejad, who was once considered to be close to Mr. Khamenei, has increasingly assumed the posture of an eccentric opposition figure. Mr. Tajzadeh, who was jailed for several years for his political activism, called for a constitutional review.
“This is an electoral coup,” Tajzadeh said on Wednesday in a virtual town hall he hosted on the Clubhouse communal chat site, in which at least 12,000 Iranians participated. “We all have to speak up and say that people will not accept the legitimacy of the result. People will not participate in this theater.
Mr. Ahmadinejad also said he would not vote and denounced the Council of Guardians. “Why don’t you completely suppress the Republic and say that this regime is all ours and that no one has the right even to protest?” Ahmadinejad said in a live Instagram talk he hosted on Wednesday with an audience of thousands.
Even Mr Raisi expressed some concern and said he had lobbied the Guardian Council to reinstate some of the candidates so that the elections would be more competitive.
The board has not made public the reasons for the disqualification of the candidates and only said it endorsed those deemed fit to lead the country under the current circumstances.
At the beginning of May, the council announced new eligibility conditions to restrict the race, excluding anyone with dual nationality, under the age of 40 or over 75, with a record. holding or having no experience in governance.
Kian Abdullahi, editor-in-chief of the Tasnim news agency, affiliated with the Revolutionary Guards, criticized the Council’s final list of candidates on Twitter, a striking note of contention from a group that has long symbolized Iran’s power base.
He said that the candidates have to be acceptable to the public and that “the people have to decide”.
Elections in the Islamic Republic have never been considered democratic by Western definition. Opponents of the government cannot come forward and the process of selecting candidates and counting the ballots is not transparent. In 2009, the election result was widely viewed as rigged and led to months of anti-government unrest.
But even so, in the election, the former candidates representing different factions and politicians were on the ballot, and the winner was not won – rivals campaigned and fought vigorously. The public was engaged. Celebrities and pop stars have even been enlisted to support the suitors.
The months leading up to the presidential elections in Iran generally brought a party atmosphere to the cities where young people gathered in the streets at night with posters, chanting slogans and waving the flags of their favorite candidate. The security apparatus tolerated these fleeting moments of open civic discourse, in part because they gave the appearance of a population that supported the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic and participated in its elections.
This time around, election fever looks extremely subdued – in part because of the pandemic, but also because of an underlying apathy. Tehran and most cities are quiet, campaign posters are scarce, and rallies and town halls are held online. The Iranians have struggled through a year of pandemic mismanagement, slow vaccine recruitment, a collapsing economy and social oppression.
“I don’t know anyone around me who votes,” said Aliyar, a 44-year-old engineer who asked that his full name not be used for fear of reprisal. “Because it has proven to us time and time again that nothing will change with the vote. It is hopeless. “
Besides Mr. Raisi, the other candidates are Mohsen Rezaee, former Commander-in-Chief of the Revolutionary Guards; Abdolnasser Hemmati, the governor of the Iranian central bank; Mohsen Mehralizadeh, former governor of the province of Isfahan; Amirhossein Ghazizadeh-Hashemi, an uncompromising lawmaker; Alireza Zakani, an uncompromising former lawmaker; and Saeed Jalili, a hard-line conservative and former nuclear negotiator.
Mr. Raisi, Mr. Rezaee and Mr. Jalili have already presented themselves unsuccessfully for the presidency. The other candidates are little known.
Abdullah Momeni, a Tehran-based political activist aligned with the reformist faction, said the final list showed hard-line conservatives had increased power.
The Islamic Republic, he said, has “shown complete disregard for public opinion and is doing so without paying any cost and crushing any potential chances of dissent.”