Reflections on the State of Democracy in Iran after the 2021 Elections: An Elegy for the Voting Non-Voter

Shervin Malekzadeh

SpongeBob SquarePants showed up on the boulevard halfway to midnight, almost two hours after state officials confirmed Hassan Rouhani as the seventh President of the Islamic Republic of Iran. The delighted and celebrating crowd quickly converged on the costumed fan, tipping him over, over and over again into an instant mosh pit in the center of Tehran before a swell of arms and hands carried him away. 

SpongeBob SquarePants (Tehran, June 2013).
Photo courtesy of the author.

Eight years and two presidential elections later the crowds stayed home, driven inside by months of official violence, an unrelenting pandemic, and the vetting process of a Guardian Council determined to get their man into office. As expected, Ebrahim Raisi became president-elect on 18 June 2021, winning with eighteen million votes, more than half a million votes less than Rouhani received in his first run, eight million fewer than the second. Second place went to four million spoiled ballots, which, depending on who you believe, were carried by former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or current Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (no word on how many votes came in for SpongeBob). 

Thirty million Iranians chose not to vote in 2021, resulting in a participation rate of forty-eight percent, reduced to a dreary forty-two percent if voided ballots are included. Either figure counts as the lowest ever recorded in the forty-two-year history of the Islamic Republic, a regime that has long prided itself on its ability to mobilize the population at election time. Al Jazeera correspondent Fereshteh Sadeghi likened the electorate’s mood in the days leading up to the ballot to that of family members refusing to speak to one another, of ghar kardan. “You [the government] don’t care about us?” Sadeghi explained, “We don’t care about you.”

A Surprise in Every Ballot Box 

A history of participation makes their silence especially meaningful. It is fashionable to say that elections in Iran don’t matter but for more than two decades these same non-voters turned out to vote when no one, including themselves, expected them to do so. With the exception of 2005, participation in presidential elections between 1997 and 2017 ranged between sevent to eighty-five percent, fueling a string of unanticipated victories by reformists and moderates. As Naghmeh Sohrabi and Arang Keshavarzian documented in 2017, the power of high turnout has been to render Iran’s presidential elections genuinely competitive and thus unpredictable. Mousavi wasn’t supposed to catch fire in 2009, nobody expected Rouhani in 2013 or Khatami in 1997 to win. The faithless voter proved to be decisive in every instance, the millions of Iranians who made the calculation, very often at the last possible moment, that no matter how much they disliked their available choices not voting was worse than staying home. They cast their vote then joined the jubilance and celebrations that followed. 

Each election was a variation on defiance, a way to give the nezam the proverbial finger (or in the Iranian version, the thumb), whether it was to deny Ahmadinejad a second term in 2009 or Raisi his first in 2017. Voting for Rouhani in 2013 wasn’t a mistake, it was revenge, redemption for the lives and votes lost in 2009.

What stands out now is how much anger they carried with their joy. Each election was a variation on defiance, a way to give the nezam the proverbial finger (or in the Iranian version, the thumb), whether it was to deny Ahmadinejad a second term in 2009 or Raisi his first in 2017. Voting for Rouhani in 2013 wasn’t a mistake, it was revenge, redemption for the lives and votes lost in 2009. This year, with the results of the June ballot already a fait accompli in May—the Guardian Council having disallowed even the most marginally viable opposition figure from appearing on the ballot—the biggest finger of all was to stay home, ghose khordan exchanged for laj kardan

Millions chose to be obstinate, this time by not participating. The protesting citizen, the savvy non-voter, once again found a way to disrupt a dishonest game from the inside out, the endgame of a 20-year effort to punish the Islamic state for its false witness. 

Learning from Losing

If nothing else, 2021 invites us to see politics in Iran as an unfolding process, propelled by memory and the electorate’s constant learning. The sophistication of the Iranian voter comes from her engagement with a competitive authoritarian regime, the resilience and willful creativity gained as a result will surely carry over into whatever comes next. This too is the legacy of a faltering system. 

While there wasn’t much effort put behind turning out the vote, Esfandyar Batmanghelidj argues that there was a great deal of energy by the opposition “devoted to conversations among families, friends, social networks about what it will take to create conditions for meaningful political reform [and] representation in Iran.” The outsized focus on non-participation at the national level, led by the boycott of this year’s presidential contest, risks missing out on the extraordinary engagement with democracy at the local and regional levels by bottom-up forces, most notably through local council elections. A recent analysis of the 2017 local council elections indicated that voter participation, particularly in regions with ethnic and religious minorities, was higher than the national average—evidence, according to Bijan Khajehpour, that groups such as Arab Iranians in Khuzestan and Sunnis in Sistan and Baluchistan have embraced council elections as their main opportunity to have meaningful representation in political bodies.

The learninggoes both ways. Goldsmith’s political theorist Eskander Sadeghi took to Twitter the day after Raisi’s win to remind us that the institutions of the authoritarian state also evolve and improve: “They’ve certainly improved since [the 2009] Green Movement how to effectively engineer elections in their favour.” Less dramatically, Iran’s hapless conservatives also became better at politics, finally adopting many of the basic campaign techniques employed to great effect by their rivals. That it took well over a decade for the Iranian “deep state” to sufficiently “improve” against the mobilization of civil society gives hope even as it speaks to the difficult work that lies ahead.

With the electoral path seemingly at a dead end and voter turnout, long the Achilles’ heel of the nezam, no longer a factor for either the public or the system, it remains to be seen whether Iran’s newly empowered hardliners will pursue a new social contract to replace the tentative détente that emerged between state and society following the suppression of the 2009 Green Movement.

The forced elevation of Raisi into the presidency may turn out to be less a permanent turn against an already limited electoral politics than a pause in the game, a trusted placeholder between faqihs so that the system can get its house in order. Authoritarian regimes have an especially hard time transitioning power to the next leader, supreme or otherwise, a phenomenon well-documented by historians and political scientists. Mehrzad Bouroujerdi and Kouroush Rahimkhani have shown that Ali Khamanei, now into his eighties and in ill health, is not unaware of the challenges if not the literature, and has planned his succession accordingly to ensure the least amount of disruption to an already fragmented polity. 

That there is a constituency for what Raisi has to offer is undeniable, a reality that many who want instant change in Iran must come to terms with. What is to be done with the 18 million who voted for Raisi? Disengagement and laj kardan won’t be enough, hasn’t been enough. Unable to quit or escape one other without the risk of uncapped violence, the current impasse between state and society will once again require a reimagining of what Bernard Crick described as the political method of rule, a devoted war of position not unlike what occurred in the years preceding the breakthrough of the reform movement (whose leaders, Mohammad Ayatollahi Tabaar reminds us, were once as hidebound and illiberal as today’s hardliners). 

Two days after Rouhani’s 2013 win, the men’s national soccer team qualified for the World Cup. The crowds came out once again, this time drawing non-Rouhani and non-voters, easily surpassing the celebrations from a few nights before. Politics being a source of division to the point of exhaustion, the success of Iran’s beloved Team Melli offered a reprieve from unrelenting conflict. Every Iranian citizen that late afternoon knew that the chances of the national team making it to the second round that year, much less winning the tournament, were almost zero. None of that mattered. For a few hours in the remaining light of a disappearing day they danced, they dreamed. Kenar amadand.

[A version of this essay appears in Responsible Statecraft.]

Posted on Jadaliyya August 2, 2021

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