A Short Guide to Iran's Elections

For all its democratic window-dressings, Iran is still an authoritarian regime.

I doubt it’s particularly controversial to say that Iran is not the first country that springs to mind when discussing elections, let alone meaningful ones.

But elections are currently happening in Iran! Today, Friday the 18th of June, Iranians will head to polling booths to elect their President from a list of candidates. It all sounds normal. Until of course, you remember that the President isn’t the head of state, or even the key-decision maker, of Iran, and that the candidates were selected by a group of clerics with the ominous name of the Guardian Council.

Iran is an authoritarian regime, yet it has an elected government, with elections that are fair, except they’re not. This sounds incredibly confusing so this article intends to quickly and simply explain how Iran’s government works, who’s probably going to win the election, and why elections in Iran even matter in the first place.

I’ll try not to use any Legalese, but unfortunately, I can make no promises. Now, where to begin?

Current Affairs

The current President of Iran is Hassan Rouhani. As President, he is the most powerful elected official in Iran, representing the Moderation and Development Party as well as the Moderate Faction.

In the latter sentence, the most important currents of Iranian Politics can be seen. Firstly, the President is elected by the people of Iran along with the Parliament and the Assembly of Experts. He answers to the Supreme Leader, who is currently Ali Khamenei. The Supreme Leader has power over the executive, is the head of government and, theoretically, the second most powerful person in Iran.

Ali Khamenei (centre) and other Iranian officials. Credit: Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 4.0)

Despite this, Iran’s President always answers to the Supreme Leader. The Supreme Leader is elected for life by the Assembly of Experts - a body comprised of elected experts in Islamic Law. The Supreme Leader has the final say on everything to do with the Government (to the extent that this is ever possible in literally any state), while also serving as commander of the Iranian Armed Forces and the Revolutionary Guard Corps.

In terms of the election, however, the key elements are the factions the candidates represent.

Factionalism, Fairness and the Future

Rouhani, as previously mentioned, is a Moderate. Moderates believe in economic liberalisation, elected bodies of government being above the religious organs and a generally conservative social policy. Then there are the conservatives, who believe that religious officials are those deserving greater importance.

Other factions include the Reformists, who support secularism and a free market economy, and the Hardliners, who believe that elected officials contradict Islamic teachings (or, rather, their interpretation of them) and that Iran should establish itself as the main regional power.

In many other democracies, we would expect to see a wide range of candidates. However, in Iran, candidates are vetted by the Guardian Council, another appointed yet unelected body, who decides who gets to run in every election. So instead of a myriad of candidates, Iran has seven who have been approved - and two of those have withdrawn their candidacy.

That leads us to the predictions.

Without a doubt, the frontrunner is the establishment favourite, Ebrahim Raisi. Raisi is the current Chief Justice of Iran, who has political experience dating back to the Revolution and speculated to succeed Khamenei as Supreme Leader. He has a positive campaign message based on healing the country after the economic downturn caused by sanctions. He is a Hardliner and enjoys broad conservative support.

The path has more or less been cleared for Raisi. The others just don’t have the prestige or political capital that he enjoys. One, Mohsen Rezai, is a former IRGC soldier and a perennial candidate who has never won an election. Another, Saeed Jalili, has also never been elected to any positions - but he is a Conservative who has been appointed to many positions by Khamenei.

There were, originally, two non-Conservative candidates. Mohsen Mehralizadeh was the only Reformist candidate up for election - however since the Reformists are suffering from unpopularity, his chances were dim and he has since withdrawn from the race. The other is a Moderate, Abdolnaser Hemmati, the Governor of the Central Bank.

The path has more or less been cleared for Raisi. The others just don’t have the prestige or political capital that he enjoys.

So, Iran is holding an election that is technically fair but that has been rigged against moderates and reformists in favour of Hardliners and Conservatives. Iran’s people can vote in this election freely and fairly - but is an election still fair when most candidates will never be on a ballot? Simply put: no. It is the stifling of opposing voices, a harsh reminder that, for all its democratic window-dressings, Iran is still an authoritarian regime.

All of this is bewildering. Iran is a fascinating example of why it’s important to educate yourself on the goings-on of governments across the globe: every government can be extremely similar while also mind-bogglingly different to each other. Seeing things from this global perspective also, in my opinion, leads to a better understanding and appreciation for the way the issues you believe are treated and affect everyone around us.

Alex is a Regular Contributor and Researcher for Demographica. He will soon be beginning a PhD at the University of Glasgow, where he previously studied an MRes in Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies. His main interests are Authoritarianism and Democracy, the Former Soviet States, and International Politics.


Cover Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons CC BY 4.0

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