Iran's rigged election

The government of the Islamic Republic has often pointed to high rates of voter turnout to buttress its claims to legitimacy, even if the electorate always has to choose from a limited spectrum of preselected candidates. In reality, however, turnout rates have varied widely. And in recent years, the Guardian Council’s increasingly aggressive disqualification practices and the hard-liners’ dogged obstruction of meaningful reforms have culminated in widespread political apathy. Recent surveys anticipate a historically low turnout of around 40 percent. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is likely to further reduce participation.

This causes very little alarm for Iran’s hard-line faction, which is not primarily concerned with shoring up the government’s popular legitimacy through competitive elections. Instead, Khamenei has decided to further shrink the circle of insiders and anoint a subservient ally to the presidency to complete the hard-liners’ control over all levers of power at a critical moment. Most observers believe rigging the election in favor of Raisi is a ploy to groom him to become the supreme leader himself, in the same way that Khamenei succeeded Iran’s first supreme leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, in 1989, after serving as president. According to this view, if Raisi became supreme leader, his lack of revolutionary and religious credentials would force him to rely on Khamenei’s office—a shadow government of sorts in which Khamenei’s son Mojtaba is a key player.

Others argue the opposite: that the supreme leader sees Raisi as a threat and that by elevating him to the presidency, Khamenei is setting him up to fail. After all, the thinking goes, as head of the judiciary, Raisi faces a narrow set of challenges and is accountable only to Khamenei, but as president, he would confront numerous socioeconomic crises amid a standoff with the West over Iran’s nuclear and regional policies. With Raisi’s credibility eroded by the burdens of the presidency, Khamenei could elevate his preferred heir apparent.

Neither hypothesis is particularly convincing.