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Iran: Challenge Of Legitimacy In Presidential Election – OpEd


As the source of Iran’s regime legitimacy has turned into a topic of discussion between republicans and Islamists during the competition of Iran’s next presidential elections, widespread protests have been raised to narrow the range of qualified candidates by the Guardian Council. Low turnout could lead a hard-liner candidate to the presidency, but many factors can increase the turnout in the coming days.

Islamic governments have been divided into two types in the modern world. Sharia law applies in some states, such as the hereditary government of Saudi Arabia, as in most countries in the Arab world. The right to self-determination through elections is meaningless. The people in these countries pledge allegiance to the king and promise submission, obedience, devotion, and loyalty, known as Bai’at in Islam terminology. Also, the government passes from one member of a ruling family to another member of the same family. On the other type of governance, the Iran revolution since 1979 presented a new model of governance derived from Shia’s sayings and named it Velayat-e Faqih, which means the guardianship of the Islamic Jurist. According to the theory, a government leader is appointed indirectly by Imam Mahdi that Shias believe will emerge one day to fulfill their mission of bringing peace and justice to the world. Also, the Assembly of Experts puts a leader in the head of the government as Vali Faghih or supreme leader, and the people elect a president, parliament’s member, and members of the Assembly of Experts. All candidates have to be qualified by the Guardian Council to run in the elections. Thus, the Guardian Council has a crucial role in elections. The Guardian Council members are elected by the supreme leader and chief of the judiciary system. Islamism and republicanism are two wings of the Islamic Republic of Iran, but the demand of people must be accordable with the Supreme leader’s opinion. The Iranian people choose their desired candidate from a limited number of individuals who must receive their qualification from representatives of the Vali-e Faghih in the Guardian Council.

Since 1979, the controversial debate has commenced about the legitimacy of the Iranian regime and the balance of power between Islamism and republicanism. Some analysts argue that both mean together, but some believe the Iranian people’s opinion is more important than ideology. On the other side, some think republicanism must be under the control of Islam as the source of legitimacy. The regime in the past years ago has always attempted to balance between Islamism and republicanism, but sometimes the conflict of legitimacy has risen in public opinion. The conflict is reflected in low turnouts of the elections as a symbol of the turnout of people.

Following the victory of the Islamic Revolution forty-two years ago, the Iranian people took part in a referendum, and the results indicated a 98.2 percent ‘Yes’ vote to the Islamic Republic. Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of the revolution, showed that the people’s opinion is essential for the regime. However, He could have started new governance without the election, but he was willing to receive legitimacy from the nation. “Our nation wants the only Islamic Republic, neither republic, nor a democratic republic, and not Islamic democratic republic,” said Ayatollah Khomeini before the referendum.

Over time, some hardliners have faded the role of the people. 

Mohammad-Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi, a Shi’i cleric, was the theorist of the ideology that recognized Vali Faghih as the regime’s legitimate source. “When a president is appointed and approved by the supreme leader, he becomes his agent.” When the president receives the ruling of the Supreme Leader, obedience to him is like obedience to God,” said Mesbah Yazdi in 2009.    

Followers of Mesbah’s theory believe that the turnout of people is not necessary, and the high participation only can boost the regime. The ideology has appeared in a number of Iranian officials’ statements officials’ statements. Recently, Guardian Council’s spokesman Abbas Ali Kadkhodaei said, “according to the law, low turnout will not create a problem for credit and legitimacy of elections.” 

In response to the controversial statement, according to the law, low turnout does not create a problem for election, but the low turnout brings the regime under question in terms of political legitimacy. Also, the low turnout undermines the republicanism of the regime. “The low turnout can provide the interests of a political faction, but it will victimize the public’s trust. The republicanism aspect is not decorative; it is an inseparable part beside Islamism”, said Majid Ansari, the former vice president of Iran. 

Also, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei knows that any election would be equal to a referendum for his regime. He frequently has stated that any vote in Iranian elections is a vote for the Islamic Republic.  As a result, he wants the majority of people to participate in elections. Any vote will count for the regime. Twelve years ago, after the public protest during the controversial presidential election in Iran, opposition leaders stated that the presidential election in which Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won was a sham. After that, the Iranian supreme leader denied their statements and said, “all voters belong to the regime, so the revolution line has 40 million votes, not only 24 million votes of the president-elect.”

The next Iranian presidential election is due to be held on 18 June 2021. The position of republicanism in Iran has knotted toughly to the next election. More than ever in Iran, politicians and analysts express their opinions about republicanism and the crucial role of people. It has come after ignoring the desires of many fractions during the extensive disqualifications. The Guardian Council of Iran has declared the names of qualified candidates for Iran’s next presidential election. The list includes Saeed Jalili, Ebrahim Raisi, Mohsen Rezaei, Alireza Zakani, Amir Hossein Ghazizadeh Hashemi, Abdolnaser Hemmati, and Mohsen Mehralizadeh. The big surprise is that the Guardian Council disqualified some prominent politicians. The former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the adviser of the supreme leader Ali Larijani, the Vice President Eshagh Jahangiri, and Mostafa Tajzadeh as a reformist critic. Now, many people say that they do not have their desired candidate on the list. After the low turnout in the last Iranian parliament election with 42 percent, the next presidential election has turned into a momentous exam for the regime. 

The extensive disqualifications have caused reactions in cyberspace, and many Iranians believe that the Chief Judiciary Ebrahim Raisi has not a significant rival in the election. The majority of qualified candidates are like-minded figures to Raisi. The Guardian Council has disqualified the majority of the reformists and moderate candidates, and some analysts say the extensive disqualification would decrease the turnout rate. “When an important part of society deprives of having of the desired candidate, the people’s vote as the criterion will be denied, and the republicanism of the regime that has faded day by day will be under threat,” said Mohammad Khatami as the fifth president of Iran Islamic Republic after extensive disqualification. 

Also, Zahra Mostafavi, daughter of Ayatollah Khomeini, rebuked the Guardian Council by her statement. “The discriminatory selections have threatened the regime for many years, and it weakens the relationship between people and government as the biggest asset of the regime.”

On the other side, many politicians have defended disqualifications. “The meaning of elections is that people declare they are obedient to the regime, and they elect an executive arm for helping Vali-e Faghih,” said Mohsen Araki, a member of the Assembly of Experts. 

Some analysts say that the Guardian Council’s way turns Iran’s governance into an Islamic caliphate.  “Some say that the elections must become Bai’at. The way does not lead the government to Mahdi’s governance,” said Vahid Jalili, a political activist.  

In fact, after extensive disqualification for the next presidential election by the Guardian Council as an establishment under the control of Iran’s supreme leader, some politicians and parties have announced to boycott the election. “I will not verify the next presidential election, and I will not vote in the election,” said the former President of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, after the Guardian Council disqualified him from running for the presidency.  

Also, the opposition of the regime has attempted to reduce the turnout in the election. The online campaign named “no to the Islamic Republic” was launched by the opposition aiming to boycott the election. The campaign activists believe any sanction of the elections is a big no to the Islamic republic. The hashtag #No2IR has trended, and many prominent figures such as Iran’s former crown prince Reza Pahlavi and some singers of Iranians abroad have supported the campaign. Dariush Eghbali, Faramarz Aslani, and Ebi were among the non-political figures who supported the campaign. 

However, the regime wants to increase the participation rate because the consecutive low turnout in two elections can bring the regime under question. So, Iran’s police have threatened the inviters of the boycott of the election. “Iran’s police confront those who invite people not to vote in the next presidential election,” said Iran’s Police Chief Hossein Ashtari. 

Recently, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei quoted Imam Khomeini’s statements about elections on Iran’s state television. He said, “Imam knew the election as a religious duty, and in his opinion, non-participation in elections in sometimes can be a great sin.” 

As reported by the various polls, most of Iran’s middle class has not any motivation to show up on June 18, 2021. The latest result of the Iranian Students Polling Agency (ISPA) as a government center says that just 34.1 percent of the Iranians have definitely participated in the next election. However, some political observers believe that state centers polling results are not credible, and their statistics are manipulated in favor of the regime.

However, several factors could motivate Iranians to participate.  Reducing the death rate of COVID-19 can help to increase participation. Many people do not want to stand up in crowded lines to vote. The government must take measures for the health of the voters. Also, If Vienna talks come to fruition before the election and the deal sends a positive economic signal to solve the problems, ordinary Iranians could be motivated to show up. If the situation does not change soon, the turnout will not be significant. 

Between qualified candidates, Abdonaser Hemati as a moderate politician and Hosein Mehralizade as a reformer politician are critics of Principlists and Ebrahim Raisi. However, not moderates and not reformers have not supported them yet because their significant candidates have been disqualified, and Hemati and Mehralizadeh are unimportant candidates. If in the coming days both collegiate together under the support of reformer’s parties and moderate figures, it can increase the turnout and make a bipolar election in society.

The next presidential election has confronted a challenge of legitimacy, and many analysts see the turnout in the election as a measure of the system’s legitimacy. Also, the previous experience has proved that the high turnout has increased the victory chance of reformers and moderates in elections. Some hardliners believe the high rate of participation can create a problem for their purposes. Their two favorite candidates Ebrahim Raisi in 2017 and Saeed Jalili in 2013 were defeated by President Rouhani when the turnout rate was more than 70 percent. However, the importance of high turnout is not deniable for the regime, but some hardliners in the government body prefer the desired result, not high participation. Republicanism and high turnout are a side issue for hardliners, and they want to put a desired person in the presidency in any way. “The result of the hot elections has always been the incorrect selection,” said Abdolnaser Mesri, the vice president of Iran’s parliament after widespread protests against the Guardian Council. 

Some analysts say the Guardian Council has engineered the elections by narrowing the range of choice to benefit Ebrahim Raisi. In Iran’s last parliament elections, the Guardian Council disqualified many reformers, and the Principlists and hardliners gave the majority of seats in parliament. “I think the reformers in the next presidential elections will not qualify. The Guardian Council in the last parliament elections have had the desired experience; consequently, the council will not put the experience aside, and it goes that way in the next presidential election,” said the former Advisor to the president of Iran, Akbar Torkan, several months ago.  

*About the author: Mohammad Javad Mousavizadeh is a Journalist and analyst in international affairs and foreign policy. He has written many articles for digital publications worldwide, such as The Free Press, Khabar Online News Agency, Foreign Policy News, The FreePress, The Levant News, Eastern Herald, Modern Diplomacy, Menafn, MilliChronicle, and South Front. Also, He is an English translator for Iranian newspapers and news agencies. He has translated tens of articles from English to Persian for media in Iran such as Shahrvand Newspaper, Mardom Salarinewspaper, Etemad newspaper, Hamdeli newspaper, etc.

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