When the Iranian regime held its latest parliamentary elections in February 2020, polling places saw their lowest levels of turnout in the 40-year history of the Iranian regime. This fact was acknowledged even by official government sources, which have a long track record of exaggerating voter participation in order to give the impression that there is widespread popular recognition of the ruling system’s legitimacy.
Soon after the elections were concluded, Iranian officials, including the regime’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, began downplaying the significance of public apathy and arguing that it was simply a result of legitimate fears of the emerging coronavirus pandemic. But this narrative was undermined by the fact that Tehran had only acknowledged the existence of domestic Covid-19 cases a day before the elections, apparently as a hedge against the failure of the regime’s concerted efforts to drive large-scale participation in the political process.
Regime’s President Hassan Rouhani later boasted of the regime’s supposed transparency about the pandemic, specifically claiming that authorities “did not delay even one day” in revealing what they knew about local community spread. In reality, though, suspected cases of coronavirus infection had been recorded by the country’s National Emergency Organization between one and two months before the regime’s first public statements on the matter.
The People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK) attributed the cover-up to the regime’s obsession with saving face in the wake of three nationwide uprisings, spanning the period between January 2018 and January 2020. Still reeling from those incidents and staring down the symbolically significant 40th anniversary of the Islamic Republic, regime authorities apparently resolved to facilitate as much participation as possible in public celebrations and parliamentary elections before considering any publicly observable countermeasures against the coronavirus.
This approach clearly put Iran on the path to becoming the worst-affected country in the Middle East and one of the worst in the world. As with the statistics regarding the parliamentary elections, this description is supported by the regime’s own estimates, even as those estimates fall far short of the reality. According to the Iranian Health Ministry, approximately 60,000 Iranians have died from Covid-19 thus far. But detailed reports from the MEK point to a death toll of roughly a quarter-million people.
The Iranian people have suffered tremendously as a result of the regime’s effort to present an image of strength and political stability. Thus, not only did that strategy fail to have the desired impact on political participation, but it also provided the general population with even more reasons to endorse the message of the nationwide uprisings and to reject all claims to legitimacy by the country’s theocratic rulers.
This has placed those rulers in a particularly difficult situation ahead of the sham presidential election. No doubt Khamenei and others are fearful of the effect upon public perceptions both at home and abroad if there is another successful boycott of the polls, as there is likely to be. In fact, the supreme leader personally articulated that fear in a speech on February 17, though he framed it as a positive appeal to Iranian citizens.
“The more public participation in the elections, the more effects and benefits it will have for the state,” Khamenei said. “Whenever we approach elections, the enemy starts saying, ‘there is no freedom and the elections are engineered,’ to disperse the people from taking part in them.”
In 2013 many Western policymakers embraced what appeared to be a come-from-behind victory for Rouhani, and even went so far as to portray it as a partial victory for “reformists”. This narrative was rejected, however, by Iranian activists who emphasized the lack of freedom of choice in all Iranian elections, as enforced by the Guardian Council, an entity tasked with vetting legislation and candidates for high office to assure they align with the will of the supreme leader.
Iranian opposition group the MEK was quick to criticize those Westerners who spoke favorably about Rouhani and his so-called reformist faction. And when the first of three nationwide uprisings broke out in the final days of 2017, rejection of the reformist/hardliner distinction went mainstream in the form of slogans that were repeated across more than 100 cities and towns. Participants in each of the uprisings were heard to identify both factions by name before declaring “the game is over,” to indicate that their preference is for leadership that comes from outside the ruling system.
That slogan, together with similar public endorsements of regime change, supports the conclusion that it was primarily an organized boycott, not anxiety over the coronavirus, which caused historically low voter turnout in February 2020. Similar boycotts had been promoted in advance of previous elections, often accompanied by the public display of banners and graffiti depicting NCRI president-elect Maryam Rajavi and urging the people of Iran to “vote for regime change.” Although the effects of these efforts may never have been as obvious as last year, they did help to reinforce the regime’s commitment to overselling voter participation by inflating official statistics and filming polling places after they were filled with members of a civilian paramilitary, known as the Basij.
There is ample reason to expect that these tactics will feature in the forthcoming sham presidential election, as well. In the first place, the regime is certainly aware of the fact that the public sentiment on display in the recent uprisings has only been amplified over the past year, even as ill-managed coronavirus outbreaks have made it more difficult for activists to organize on a large scale. In recent weeks, there have been signs of that organization re-emerging, especially in marginalized communities like those in the border province of Sistan and Baluchistan.
Those protests were cited by Maryam Rajavi in multiple speeches marking the Iranian New Year holiday, Nowruz, in March. “The Persian year 1400 will see the blazing of the flames of uprisings from underneath the ashes of disease and repression. It will see the people of Iran rising up again to overthrow the regime.” This call has been directly repeated in messages presented to the public by MEK “Resistance units” inside Iran. And as the sham presidential election approaches, more and more of those messages are also reiterating the opposition group’s perennial appeals for a boycott of the political process.
“No to the mullahs’ election, no to the mullahs’ rule, yes to freedom,” said at least one handwritten sign spotted in recent days. “The regime’s sham presidential election bears no legitimacy in the eyes of the Iranian people,” said another. Now more than ever, these are messages that the ruling system is eager to counter. But now more than ever, the circumstances inside Iran and within Western policy circles seem ill-suited to the regime’s effort at spreading propaganda.