After the death of President Raisi, the Iranian elections represent a difficult test for the rulers

For decades, Iranian leaders have been able to cite high voter turnout in elections as evidence of the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic's political system. But as voter turnout has plummeted in recent years, the elections they will now be forced to hold following the death of President Ebrahim Raisi will force the political establishment into a decision it doesn't want to make.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the country's supreme leader, has two options, each of which carries risks.

It could ensure that the presidential elections, which according to the Constitution must take place within 50 days of Raisi's death, are open to everyone, from extremists to reformists. But that risks leading to competitive elections that could take the country in a direction it doesn't want.

Or it can repeat the strategy adopted in the last elections and block not only reformist rivals, but also moderate and loyal opposition figures. This choice could leave him facing the embarrassment of an even lower voter turnout, a move that would be interpreted as a stern rebuke to his increasingly authoritarian state.

Voter turnout in Iran has been on a downward trajectory in recent years. In 2016, more than 60% of the country's voters participated in parliamentary elections. In 2020, the figure was 42%. Officials had promised that March's result would be higher, but instead it was just under 41%.

Just a week before Raisi's death, the final round of parliamentary elections in Tehran garnered just 8% of potential votes – a surprising number in a country where Khamenei once mocked Western democracies for turnout at the polls between 30% and 40%.

“Khamenei has been given a golden opportunity to easily, face-saving, allow people to enter the political process if he chooses to seize this opportunity,” said Mohammad Ali Shabani, an Iranian political analyst and editor of Amwaj, an independent media outlet. “Unfortunately, what has happened in recent years indicates that he will not go down this path.”

Iran is a theocracy with a parallel system of government in which elected bodies are overseen by appointed councils. Major state nuclear, military and foreign affairs policies are decided by Ayatollah Khamenei and the Supreme National Security Council, while the Revolutionary Guards have increased their influence on the economy and politics.

The president's role is more limited to domestic politics and economic issues, but still remains an influential position.

Elections also remain an important litmus test of public sentiment. Low voter turnout in recent years has been seen as a clear sign of the souring mood towards the clergy and the political establishment which has become increasingly hard-line and conservative.

“For the regime, this distance – this disconnect between state and society – is a serious problem,” said Sanam Vakil, director of the Middle East and North Africa program at Chatham House, a London-based think tank. “What they want is to contain conservative unity, but it is difficult to take Raisi's place.”

Raisi, a cleric who worked for years in the judiciary and was involved in some of the most brutal acts of repression in the country's history, was a staunch loyalist of Khamenei and his worldview.

A staunch supporter of religious rule in Iran, Raisi has long been seen as a potential successor to the supreme leader, despite, or perhaps because of, his lack of a strong personality that would pose a risk to Khamenei. Now, without a clear candidate to support, Khamenei may face infighting within his conservative base.

“Raisi was a yes man, and the point was his modesty,” said Arash Azizi, a historian who focuses on Iran and lectures at Clemson University in South Carolina. “The political establishment includes many people with serious financial and political interests. There will be power struggles.”

The candidates allowed to run will be indicative of the type of path the supreme leader wants to take.

Mohammad Baqer Ghalibaf, a pragmatic technocrat who is speaker of Parliament and one of the country's perpetual presidential candidates, will likely try to run. But his work in Parliament in recent years has been evaluated negatively, Azizi said. Parliament has done little to help resolve Iran's economic crisis, and Ghalibaf, despite calling himself a champion of Iran's poor, sparked national outrage in 2022 over reports that his family had gone shopping in Turkey .

Another likely contender is Saeed Jalili, a former Revolutionary Guards fighter who became a nuclear negotiator and is seen as a hardline Khamenei loyalist. His candidacy would not bode well for a potential expansion towards the West, Azizi said.

In all recent Iranian elections, Khamenei has shown himself willing to eliminate any reformist or even moderate candidate considered a loyal opposition. The results were clear: in 2021 Raisi won with the lowest turnout ever seen in a presidential election, at 48%. By contrast, more than 70% of Iran's 56 million eligible voters cast ballots when President Hassan Rouhani was elected in 2017.

And so far there is no sign that Iran's political establishment can reverse course.

“It's a system that is moving away from its republican roots and becoming more authoritarian,” Ms. Vakil said, adding of Khamenei: “As long as he is comfortable with repressive control and the elites maintain their unity, don't expect to see a change.”

Ellie Geranmayeh, an Iran analyst at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said what will most likely dissuade Khamenei from widening the race will be his desire for leadership that can ensure a smooth and stable transition when a new leader is chosen supreme. . Mr Khamenei is 85 years old and in poor health.

Yet Khamenei has equally compelling reasons to consider opening up to moderates. Under Raisi, the country had faced a series of dramatic upheavals, with the economy in decline and unemployment skyrocketing. And the violent crackdown on anti-government protests that erupted in 2022 after the death in custody of a young woman accused of improperly wearing her veil has left much of the population disillusioned.

Although it seemed extremely unlikely that Khamenei would change course, Geranmayeh said that “the system in Iran has the capacity to surprise itself.”

Former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, despite being a known hardliner, surprised the political establishment with his populist persona.

And Rouhani, a moderate within the system, surprised many with his attempts to open up economically to the West, managing to reach a nuclear deal before it was scuppered by Donald J. Trump, the then US president.

Yet there is no moderate who might enter the race, and even if they did, there is no certainty how the public would react.

“The question is whether people will go to vote, because there has been strong disillusionment,” Ms. Geranmayeh said.

And in a country whose leaders came to power in the wake of popular revolution – and where anti-government protests have already forced the government to mount a crackdown to stop them – the long-term risk is clear, said Shabani, the political analyst .

“If people stop believing in change through the ballot box,” he said, “there is only one other option.”

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