What Is the Point of an Election in Iran?
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What Is the Point of an Election in Iran?
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With the exceptions of the few remaining absolute monarchies and communist dictatorships, most authoritarian regimes feel compelled to hold elections in which different candidates or parties seem to compete for power, campaigns are conducted, and, occasionally, a measure of suspense precedes the ballot counting. With the president-for-life model no longer acceptable and rule by decree frowned upon by the international community and multilateral financial institutions, authoritarians face the relatively new challenge of manipulating elections before the votes are cast, in order to avoid the messiness, embarrassment, and logistical difficulties of outright fraud.

Indeed, it is important for these regimes to maintain a baseline of plausibility in their elections, partly to protect an illusion of popular consent and legitimacy. While some put more effort into this illusion than others, most offer some public explanation for their preelection maneuvers. One method of election fixing is to arrest the opposition leader on trumped-up criminal charges, as was done in recent years to Anwar Ibrahim in Malaysia and Yuliya Tymoshenko in Ukraine. Another common technique is to use the same pliant legal system against private media owners, gain control of the principal outlets-usually national television networks-and transform them into instruments of regime propaganda, as has been done in Russia and Venezuela. Gerrymandering can be a useful tool; the ruling coalition in Malaysia fared poorly in recent elections, but retained a parliamentary majority thanks in part to cleverly drawn districts. In all of these cases, the system-on paper, at least-ultimately rests on the principal of popular sovereignty, the notion that the people have the power to choose their leaders.

And then there is Iran. This week's announcement that the Guardian Council had disqualified Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani as a candidate in the June 14 presidential election is an especially pointed reminder of the unique and uniquely preposterous election system devised by the Islamic Republic's leaders to ensure their hold on power.

Much of the commentary triggered by the disqualification has focused on Rafsanjani's history as a leading figure of the Iranian revolution. He was rejected despite having been a confidante of the republic's founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini; a two-term president (1989-97); and chairman of important bodies like the Assembly of Experts and the Expediency Council. In fact, he continues to lead the Expediency Council, which arbitrates disputes between the Guardian Council and the parliament. The Guardian Council has offered no formal explanation for its decision, though a spokesman hinted that Rafsanjani's physical stamina and age (79) were factors. This has failed to convince Iranians, given that Khomeini himself was nearly that age when he began his 10 years as supreme leader, and many of the clerics who hold positions of authority in the country are in their 80s.

It is, however, difficult to muster sympathy for Rafsanjani or, for that matter, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, the favored candidate of outgoing president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who was also disqualified. Both men rose to prominence in a system that was set up to exclude anyone who displeased the supreme leader, only to find themselves excluded as well.

Rafsanjani played a key role in creating this system, adding to the absurdity of his disqualification. He lost an earlier bid to return to the presidency in 2005, when he advanced to the runoff but was defeated by Ahmadinejad. The regime's approach to the current election may be a reaction to what happened when Ahmadinejad sought a second term in 2009. The Guardian Council allowed two important reformist candidates-Mir Hussein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi-to participate, but the authorities apparently resorted to fraud to ensure the incumbent's victory. Here is how the election was described in Freedom in the World:

Despite polls that indicated a close race, Ahmadinejad was declared the winner soon after the election, credited with over 63 percent of the vote. Mousavi officially received only 33.75 percent, while [Mohsen] Rezai and Karroubi reportedly garnered 1.73 percent and 0.85 percent, respectively. All three challengers lodged claims of fraud, and subsequent findings by independent analysts reinforced suspicions that irregularities had occurred. According to official data, the conservative vote increased by 113 percent compared with the 2005 election, and several provinces registered more votes than the number of eligible voters. In 10 provinces won by Ahmadinejad, his victory was only possible if he had secured the votes of all former nonvoters and all those who had voted for his main conservative opponent in 2005, as well as up to 44 percent of those who had previously voted for reformist candidates.

In other words, the system is rigged, through the Guardian Council's power to eliminate candidates who might question the authority of the clerics, and then rigged again, through poll manipulation, to ensure that even moderate reformists who are loyal to the revolution cannot prevail. Faced with such implausible results in 2009, hundreds of thousands of voters took to the streets in peaceful protests, which were crushed only with great difficulty by security forces. Mousavi and Karroubi remain under house arrest.

Rafsanjani cautiously voiced support for the moderates' cause in the wake of the 2009 elections, and he has recently called for a more pragmatic approach to domestic governance and foreign policy, making him a new potential rallying point for reformist and other discontented voters. His disqualification seems designed to ensure that no popular alternative appears on the ballot, lowering the stakes and blatancy of any subsequent fraud, and reducing the possibility of new protests.

But with so much decided before a single vote is cast, many Iranians are wondering aloud why the leadership bothers to hold elections at all. Aside from the fraudulent nature of the process, there is the fact that the president lacks any real power, as his office is hemmed in on all sides by the real source of authority, the supreme leader. Here is how the system is outlined in Freedom in the World:

The most powerful figure in the government is the supreme leader, currently Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. He is chosen by the Assembly of Experts, a body of 86 clerics who are elected to eight-year terms by popular vote, from a list of candidates vetted by the Guardian Council. The supreme leader, who has no fixed term, is the commander in chief of the armed forces and appoints the leaders of the judiciary, the heads of state broadcast media, the Expediency Council, and half of the Guardian Council members. [The other half are nominated by the head of the judiciary, who is himself appointed by the supreme leader.] Although the president and the parliament, both with four-year terms, are responsible for designating cabinet ministers, the supreme leader exercises de facto control over appointments to the Ministries of Defense, Interior, Foreign Affairs, and Intelligence.

And, of course, the supreme leader can overrule the Guardian Council, which is why Ahmadinejad has pledged to appeal to Khamenei on Mashaei's behalf. Rafsanjani has made no such move, no doubt understanding that the council would not have acted against the supreme leader's will.

Nearly all of the remaining eight candidates have close personal or professional ties to Khamenei or the hard-line Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and the one or two reputed moderates on the list lack the stature of past reformist champions. Notably, two of the candidates approved by the Guardian Council-Ali Akbar Velayati and Mohsen Rezai-have been implicated in the 1994 bombing of a Jewish cultural center in Buenos Aires. The bombing, believed to have been planned in Iran and carried by Hezbollah agents, killed 85 people and injured 300.

Iran now finds itself in a disastrous situation. The electoral apparatus, designed to give the system a façade of popular legitimacy, has been abused well beyond the point of credibility, and voters are increasingly insulted by the sham. More importantly, they now have little or no hope of peacefully changing government policies that have led to international isolation, domestic repression, and economic collapse. The regime's leaders may have wanted to avoid the turmoil of 2009, but they seem capable only of making things worse.