Iran’s presidential election is scheduled to take place on June 18. The final list of candidates is expected this Thursday, but for weeks, Iranian officials have been warning that the greatest challenge facing any and all candidates may be public antipathy to the electoral process. In April, the state media outlet Hamdeli published an article that said the regime “should worry about the social consequences” of low voter turnout, while another state-run daily newspaper, Jahan-e Sanat, observed that “significant voter turnout is unlikely” in the face of authorities’ persistent disregard for the grievances driving earlier electoral boycotts and mass protests.
The latter article specifically highlighted the continuity between at least two such protests – one in January 2018 and another in November 2019 – and an electoral boycott that activist groups have been promoting in advance of the presidential election. But for those who have been paying close attention to Iranian affairs in recent years, this continuity was already obvious. Among the defining features of the January 2018 uprising were slogans that explicitly rejected both factions of mainstream Iranian politics. These slogans were later adopted by the November 2019 uprising, which spanned nearly 200 cities and towns, and the message was put into practice three months later when the Islamic Republic held its latest parliamentary elections.
For weeks beforehand, authorities urged all citizens to participate in the elections, often emphasizing that even if they found no candidates worth supporting, they should still submit ballots in order to affirm their support for the ruling system. Yet this was the very thing that thousands upon thousands of Iranians had rejected with two successive uprisings and a range of other, smaller-scale protests. Recurring chants like “death to the dictator” conveyed enthusiasm for the prospect of regime change, and by telling both “hardliners” and “reformists” that “the game is over,” protesters made it clear that they would no longer be tricked into allowing two indistinguishable factions to trade control over key institutions while continually subjecting the Iranian people to the same destructive policies and endemic corruption.
Although Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei proclaimed that participation in the February 2020 election was both a patriotic and a religious duty for all Iranians, the actual turnout in that election proved to be the lowest in the 40-year history of the Islamic Republic. This fact was even acknowledged by Tehran’s own statistics, despite the regime’s longstanding history of inflating voter participation numbers in order to create a veneer of greater legitimacy for itself. Its inability to do so last year was a true testament to the staying power of the uprisings’ political message, as well as the undeniable vulnerability that the regime had acquired in their wake.
Khamenei begrudgingly revealed that vulnerability himself at the height of the first uprising. In absence of any other credible explanation for the rapid spread and stark anti-government message of the January 2018 protests, the Supreme Leader stated publicly that the nationwide activist movement had been fueled by the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran. Although that group has long been recognized in Western policy circles as the leading voice for democracy in the Islamic Republic, the Iranian regime has always denied its popularity and its organizational strength, referring to it as a “cult” and a “grouplet” and feigning a lack of concern for the challenge that it presents to the theocratic system.
That bravado vanished in the face of the first uprising, and has never returned. Quite to the contrary, Tehran’s tactic acknowledgment of vulnerability has been reinforced with each successive development, as evidenced by recurring warnings from government officials and state media outlets regarding the prospect of further PMOI-led uprisings. These were no doubt the primary “social consequences” of low voter turnout that Hamdeli had in mind last month. And the threat of renewed unrest has only become more apparent in the intervening month.
The electoral boycott movement has specifically begun to overlap with various protests happening throughout the Islamic Republic, each calling attention to a different social or economic crisis. Impoverished pensioners, for instance, have been staging interconnected protests in more and more Iranian cities since early this year, and early this month they began chanting slogans like, “We have seen no justice; we will no longer vote.” The same or similar slogans have been taken up by other activist groups, while “Resistance Units” affiliated with the PMOI have promoted the boycott in terms that harken back to the nationwide uprisings.
The Resistance Units are responsible for staging demonstrations and posting messages in public that describe non-participation in “sham elections” as a means of “voting for regime change.” Many of these messages are accompanied by images of the PMOI’s founder Massoud Rajavi and his wife and prospective transitional president for a democratic Iran, Maryam Rajavi. Some of them also offer a response to Khamenei’s instructions regarding the electoral process, by quoting the Rajavis as saying the patriotic duty of freedom-loving Iranians is not to vote but to deny the system any possible claim to legitimacy.
Whoever “wins” next month’s election, it will certainly be difficult for him to claim legitimacy if the voter participation exceeds or even comes close to the historic lows seen during last year’s parliamentary election. This will be all the more difficult if it is clear to everyone that a mass boycott represents mass endorsement of the democratic Resistance movement behind it. And with that movement being the same one that inspired so many Iranians to directly confront the regime in the final years before the pandemic, the public’s endorsement of regime change should be very difficult to deny.