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Iran’s Reformists face tough choice between participation or boycotting election

While Reformists are hesitant to give legitimacy to what they believe to be a fraudulent vote, they are also aware that if they do not participate in the Friday election, it would be difficult for them to win in the next election four years later.
Supporters of Iran's Reformist candidate Abdolnasser Hemmati hold his campaign posters during a rally in the Iranian capital, Tehran, on June 15, 2021, three days ahead of the Islamic Republic's June 18 presidential election.

With less than two days until Iranians head to the polls to elect a new president on June 18, Reformists and moderates have to make up their mind on whether to join the game or boycott it.

After the Guardian Council — an unelected body charged with vetting candidates — disqualified the main Reformist and moderate presidential hopefuls, it became clear from the onset that the Reformist front in Iranian politics would face a bumpy road to participating in this year’s presidential elections. 

The vetting council only let in two candidates affiliated with the Reformists: Adolnasser Hemmati, the former Central Bank of Iran (CBI) governor; and Mohsen Mehr Alizadeh, who served as vice president to previous Reformist president Mohammad Khatami and as head of the Physical Education Organization. Neither of them is considered to be a major challenger.

Moreover, Hemmati, who until less than two weeks ago was CBI governor under President Hassan Rouhani, is considered to be a moderate technocrat. He has no major following to rally the support of Reformists. Furthermore, Iran’s currency has faced high depreciation during his term at the helm of the CBI. Although he says he has been able to keep the CBI floating in the face of tough pressure from Trump-era sanctions, the general public accuses him of being part of the problem rather than the solution. They partly blame him for economic problems and the high rate of inflation.

From the onset, a division surfaced within the moderate and Reformist camps.

On May 26, the Council for Coordinating the Reforms Front, which leads the Reformist camp in Iran, announced in a statement that it would not support any candidate running in the presidential election due to widespread disqualifications.

After that, the Association of Combatant Clerics, which is an old association comprised of prominent clerics, also announced in a statement on June 1 that it would not support any candidate in the presidential election. The association cited “avoiding falling into the trap" laid by "electoral engineers" as the reason for its decision.

However, another major Reformist group, the Executives of Construction of Iran Party, officially announced on June 2 that it would support Hemmati, who is one of its members.

Therefore, there is still skepticism of the Reformists’ ability to adopt a unified stance on the election. The Reformists almost unanimously believe that the hard-liners are preparing for a rigged election and see the widespread disqualifications as laying the ground for their favored candidate’s victory, namely Ebrahim Raisi. Nevertheless, there is no agreement among them on calling the votes in advance “rigged” to boycott it altogether.

While some believe that participating in this year’s vote would legitimize what they deem a fraudulent election, others are of the opinion that even in the current situation they should not let the rival camp play the game and they should foil their plots for the votes by throwing their influence behind Hemmati.

But both sides face serious challenges on their way to carry out their plans. The first group’s problem is that they cannot sell Hemmati to the people. After three election debates, he is still not doing well in the polls. According to the latest poll conducted by the ISPA Institute on June 9-10, Hemmati would only receive about 2.8 to 3 % of the votes.

Also, based on the turnout rate, which is estimated by the polling explorer to be at 41%, it is predicted that the main candidate of the principlist camp, Raisi, would easily win with about 63% to 65% of the vote.

But those who call for boycotting the election might encounter the risk of getting ousted from power forever. History shows that when the opposition decides to boycott elections in an authoritarian political system, not only is the legitimacy of that system not threatened but, on the contrary, it could get ousted really easily from power.

At the same time, Reformists are aware that if they do not run in this year’s elections, it would be difficult for them to win in the next election four years later. Given the fact that the Interior Ministry would be in charge of holding elections under a hard-line government, history might repeat itself as it did in the controversial elections in 2009 when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s administration was in charge of holding the vote and the sitting president was declared re-elected with a high turnout, much to the chagrin of Reformists.

All these dichotomies and doubts have made it difficult for this political font in Iran to make up its mind. This is also seen among their supporters — while one group is trying to persuade people to vote for Hemmati, the others have remained indifferent and believe that turning out to vote has proven futile in the Islamic Republic.

Such a gap could also be seen among opposition leaders inside Iran. In a short letter on June 12, Green Movement leader Mir Hossein Mousavi, who has been under house arrest since February 2011, clearly stated that he would not go to the ballot box. Mousavi wrote in his message, "I will stand by those who are sick and tired of the humiliating and fraudulent elections, those who do not want to give in to secret decisions made behind the scenes for the future of the country."

Although Mousavi did not clearly call for a boycott of the election, many political observers believe his message suggested that he would not vote. But even Mousavi could not audibly express his message to leave no room for doubt and confusion.

Mehdi Karroubi, another candidate in the 2009 presidential election who has been under house arrest since 2011, has a different opinion. On June 14, he sent a message to Reformists through his son to nominate a candidate for the June 18 election as soon as possible. “A minority faction within the establishment who lack popular support are “trying to eliminate any remnant of a republic from the political system,” Karroubi said.

Meanwhile, the top leader of the Reformists, Khatami, put out a message a day after Mousavi’s on June 13, indirectly inviting the people to turn out to vote. Khatami, without naming anyone, said in his message to the members of the Reformist Youth Party, "In this discouraging and depressing atmosphere when our society needs passion, hope and encouragement to participate in determining its fate, I hope they recognize their responsibility toward the homeland and the people appropriately and succeed in fulfilling that responsibility."

Analyzing political statements by Reformist leaders also shows that they, too, are confused and do not know what to do next. They are also in a dilemma whether to participate or boycott the votes in a bid not to be seen as a part of the game. Or, on the contrary, do they try to play the game with low turnout (people who do not vote) — two choices that both seem to be equally challenging and risky.

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