As Iranians head to the polls to vote in their presidential elections on Friday, much attention has rightly focused on the choice they will make. The incumbent Hassan Rouhani, and his hefty coalition of reformists and pragmatists, are trying to fend off a hardline conservative ticket headed by judiciary stalwart Ebrahim Raisi. Iranian elections matter: After all, the differences between Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Hassan Rouhani’s presidencies clearly demonstrate the consequences for tens of millions of Iranians who have long sought the fulfillment of their political, economic, and social aspirations. Also important, however, is choice that Iran’s political establishment must make on Election Day.
From Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei down to local officials in the provinces, Iranian officials across the board stress the importance of high voter turnout. The impetus is straightforward: political elites seek to utilize elections as a means of re-socializing society into the Islamic Republic every few years, with campaigns and debates providing a unique airing of grievances that paradoxically helps breathe new life into the system – so long as they stop short of protests à la 2009. On the other hand, an equally diverse electorate – with different political, economic, social, and cultural backgrounds – demands that their interests be addressed in return for electoral participation that legitimizes the system.
And therein lies the rub. It has long been clear what most Iranian voters want. The electoral results speak for themselves. Reformist President Mohammad Khatami won in 1997 and 2001 with 79.9% and 66.8% voter turnout, respectively. Rouhani won four years ago with 72.9% turnout and 18.6 million votes. In contrast, no hardline presidential candidate has ever exceeded Ahmadinejad’s 17.2 million votes in 2005 – and his numbers were boosted by the lowest voter turnout percentage since 1993, and droves of disenchanted reform-minded voters staying home on Election Day. Thus, if voter turnout is anywhere near 2013 levels, a Raisi victory would require an electoral feat that hardliners have never before accomplished.
This is the political establishment’s dilemma: precisely because it seeks to cement the Islamic Republic’s legitimacy through voter turnout, its top priority above all else is high turnout. A close second, however: ensuring that after it secures high turnout, voters perceive the electoral process as legitimate, thereby facilitating a peaceful post-election atmosphere within (and between) state and society. Rouhani knows this, and he has utilized it on the campaign trail to make arguably the most forward-leaning remarks of any Iranian president in the 38-year history of the Islamic Republic.
While it’s true that election season in Iran traditionally allows for an expansion of otherwise taboo political discourse, Rouhani taken it to uncharted waters. First, he publicly committed to engaging in the process of lifting all non-nuclear sanctions if he wins a second term. Then he told a rally that he had not forgotten his 2013 campaign promises, openly stating: “Either they have been achieved, or I have been prevented from keeping them.” And remarkably, he directly told voters: “I’ll need votes higher than 51% in order to do certain things.”
These comments might seem innocuous because they are obviously true, but they openly challenge Iran’s long-standing political orthodoxy in ways that former Presidents Rafsanjani and Khatami – as well as Green Movement leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi – never dared to do. Rouhani is clearly emboldened: partly due to his candid personality, and partly due to the fact that significant electoral malfeasance remains extremely costly – but not impossible – for the entire system, as evidenced by chants for Mousavi and Karroubi at Rouhani’s campaign rallies across the country.
Nevertheless, the pushback against Rouhani’s recent remarks has been swift and equally direct: His campaign headquarters in Tehran have reportedly been hacked and physically attacked. The basij and its associated networks have been mobilized across the country – and at times, bused in from different cities – to attend Raisi’s campaign events. Top judiciary and IRGC officials have openly called for voters to choose Raisi. And perhaps most notably, Iran’s interior minister announced that election results might not be announced as they come in per traditional practice, but instead as a final result after the first round is complete. This latter point is noteworthy because while Iran’s Guardian Council technically certifies election results, it only does so after receiving Khamenei’s blessing.
All of this must be taken into account with one additional factor at play: The Islamic Republic after Khamenei. The framing of Iran’s election is Rouhani vs. Raisi. And indeed, both men want the same job – but it’s not the presidency. This election is important for the internal political balance of power leading up to the inevitable day when Iran must choose its next Supreme Leader. There is no way for anyone – inside Iran, or outside Iran – to predict how this process will play out. Instead, various Iranian stakeholders are trying to build as much leverage as possible for when the time comes. Controlling the presidency, various ministries, and budget planning is one of many ways to maximize such leverage.
Thus, the political establishment is now faced with a choice come Election Day: bend to the will of the people and maintain stability, or don’t – and risk the consequences. Increasingly, Iranian stakeholders go all out during presidential elections less because they can shape society, and more because society requires it of them. With that in mind, we already know what kind of future the majority of Iranians want. Friday’s election results will go a long way toward telling the world whether Iran’s political establishment shares and supports those aspirations.