Iran votes: Why the Supreme Leader is so desperate to bring out voters

Suffering from a legitimacy crisis after the fraud-tainted, heavily protested 2009 vote, Iran feels immense pressure to demonstrate that people have regained faith in their political system.

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei sits next to a portrait of late leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini while taking part in a television live programme in Tehran in this 2011 photo.

Iran’s Supreme Leader is pushing hard for high turnout in presidential elections on Friday, hoping voters will “disappoint the enemy” in a “great divine test” and bury the memory of Iran’s fraud-tainted 2009 vote.

Describing the post-election unrest that year as “sedition," Ayatollah Ali Khamenei declared, “Every vote that the people cast … is primarily a vote of confidence for the Islamic Republic and for our electoral mechanism."

And for many Iranians who took to the streets that year to protest electoral fraud – three million in one day in Tehran alone – that is precisely why they are either torn about voting again, or refuse to do so. 

“Post-2009, I’d rather make sure that my hands are clean, that the blood that was spilt doesn’t taint me for the sake of a worthless ballot paper and a moment, a mere nanosecond of satisfaction through the illusion that I make a difference,” says a Tehran mother who took part in the 2009 protests and asked not to be further identified. “Not voting is possibly the most potent weapon now left for us.”

But the presence of a viable reformist candidate in a race that has long been expected to produce an unflashy and unambitious conservative loyalist of Khamenei could make an unexpected difference.

Khamenei told Iranians today that his “insistence” on high turnout would force Iran’s foes to “reduce pressures and follow another path.” He added, uncharacteristically, that even while some “don’t want to back Islamic system,” they should still vote to support their nation.

For the regime, high turnout would be a “reaffirmation that, ‘We have overcome the crisis, and our electoral process is the only mechanism,’” says an Iranian political scientist now in Washington, who asked not to be further identified. “So if they can achieve that – even if they can pretend to achieve that – it would be for them a victory.”

Reformist comeback

There will be six candidates on the ballot, dominated by the predicted handful of lackluster conservatives. But there is also a moderate: former nuclear negotiator Hassan Rohani, who appears to have gained a degree of popular support in recent days, along with the endorsement of two key former presidents.

The last two reformist presidential candidates in 2009, Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, both previous holders of top regime posts, remain under house arrest in Tehran. Hundreds of their key supporters were imprisoned after weeks of protests that left scores dead. Protestors chanted “Death to the Dictator!” and defaced portraits of Khamenei; their Green Movement was violently crushed.

In recent weeks even Rohani campaign staffers have been arrested when pro-Mousavi chants erupted at Rohani events.

But Rohani has now won the endorsement of former two-time president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a regime stalwart who was among nearly 700 candidates rejected by the Guardian Council. As a man who could potentially challenge Khamenei, his registration sparked high popular interest in the vote.

Rafsanjani said Iran's "current condition is critical," and that leaders must be able to "comprehend the youth's desires" and not "create … threats and more enemy sanctions due to extremism and imprudence." 

And Rohani also received the backing of Mohammad Khatami, the reformist president who won unprecedented landslide victories in 1997 and 2001 and remains one of Iran’s most popular politicians. His backing will help Rohani pursue his catchwords of “unity and hope” as he faces the divided conservatives. Mr. Khatami said that with Rohani a contender, "all of us must put laxity aside and wholeheartedly enter the scene" by voting.

“Despite eight years of subversion, Rafsanjani and Khatami’s popularity increased,” Rohani’s campaign media staff wrote in a tweet today. “Everyone must know that subversives and liars have no place in Iran.”

Other tweets describe how a “surge” in Rohani’s popularity has “propelled him to frontrunner status.”

“The very fact that reformists are actually making a comeback, and swallowing their pride, and sticking with the political process even though they have been crushed – that may indicate all sides want … less than a total confrontation,” says the Iranian political scientist.

“I’m surprised by how the reformists have been able to pull together, despite all this onslaught, disqualifications, activists in jail and everything else; they are really having a chance,” says the academic. “They have been persistent and survivors. The system has not been able to eliminate them.”

Will my vote matter?

But the decision to vote also comes down to individual perceptions about how much of a difference their vote might make. 

“Activism does not only take place in the streets, it also happens in conversations regarding whether to vote or not…. Whatever they decide, they want their action to have political meaning,” writes Iran specialist Farideh Farhi of the University of Hawaii at Manoa, in an analysis this week for LobeLog

“Given the dynamic state-society relations of the Islamic Republic and societal demands that clearly remain unfulfilled, it would be quite unnatural if at least some parts of Iran’s vibrant, highly urbanized and differentiated society did not debate the legitimacy, role, and weight of the electoral system … after what happened in 2009,” says Ms. Farhi.

She quotes Abbas Abdi, a reformist journalist who has done jail time, describing how he will vote despite having his “livelihood … repeatedly undermined by the authorities.” Mr. Abdi said his main reason “under the current conditions is opening this path and returning critics to the official arena of the country.”

The debate about voting is playing itself out vividly in Facebook posts, sometimes with curious logic. 

“I voted in 2009 for Mir Hossein: They stole my vote and told me, ‘Your vote has no value, we decide for you,’” reads one post in Persian. “I will vote again so they count it or force them to steal it. I won’t let the Ruler’s candidate win easily…. The thieves want me not to vote: ‘You are nobodies.’ I will vote, to increase the cost of making us nobodies higher for the Ruler.”

Political jockeying

Beside Rohani, there are currently five other candidates – all of them conservatives with different experiences but few clear solutions for easing Iran’s economic woes, lifting sanctions pressure imposed by the US, United Nations, and European Union over Iran’s nuclear program; or even resolving the nuclear dispute.

Saeed Jalili, Iran’s current nuclear negotiator, and Ali Akbar Velayati, a veteran foreign minister who is Khamenei’s foreign policy advisor, are believed to be closest to the Supreme Leader. Tehran mayor Mohammad Baqr Qalibaf is popular for his management of Iran’s unruly capital city, and as an Iran-Iraq war veteran, he appeals to a broad spectrum of Iranians. But as a former police chief he has also been tarred by his still-unclear role in violent suppression of student and street protests in 1999 and 2003.

The candidates have engaged in three debates, but only in the third did they show different positions on key issues like nuclear negotiations with world powers

Rohani got this far in the process, despite a rumor this week that the Guardian Council might revoke its approval for him to run. He talks about the need to improve human rights in Iran, the people’s voice, and other issues that have been largely absent from political discourse throughout President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s eight years in power. During that time, Khamenei has ensured that Iran’s political space has shifted far to the right.

Khamenei “is concerned with the election’s legitimacy, but his goal above all else is to ensure a stable election that produces a president loyal to him personally,” writes Alireza Nader of the RAND Corporation, in a recent pre-election report.

The result, Mr. Nader concludes, is that “the vote of the Iranian population will be largely irrelevant, as the election is a jockeying for power among competing factions rather than as an expression of popular will.”

If Rohani – ironically the only cleric in the race to be lead an “Islamic republic" – gains momentum, earning the backing of various stripes of moderates and reformists, it might motivate those who felt cheated in 2009.

“The whole concept of [reformists] pushing and pushing, and not letting Khamenei dictate everything has become in and of itself an end for some,” says the Iranian academic in Washington.

“It’s highly unlikely there will be as massive a turnout as [2009], but still it will be more than we all expected a few months ago,” he notes. “Some people say: ‘If the system’s favorite candidate is Jalili, so our primary goal should be to not let that happen.’ So it’s not important who becomes the president, it’s important who does not become the president.”

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