Issues & Insights

Iran’s Election Boycott Signified Much More Than Just A Change In Administration

Iran's President Ebrahim Raisi. Source: Tasnim News Agency, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/deed.en).

International news outlets have shown a growing awareness of the boycott of Iran’s presidential election that took place a week ago. Even some Iranian state media have speculated about voter participation rates that could break the record low that was set only 16 months ago at the latest parliamentary election.

Western media are picking up this phenomenon in Iran that the regime itself has made little effort to cover up. But those same outlets should not overlook the reasons behind the popular boycott, which appears to be exactly what they’ve done.

Most reports in the U.S. and Europe seem to ascribe voter apathy to a relative lack of options on the ballot, coupled with growing frustration over an economic crisis and a glut of corruption.

These things certainly are contributing to the appeal of the boycott movement, but what Western reporting tends to neglect is the fact that this movement has deep roots, which highlight the extraordinary challenges the regime stands to confront in the aftermath of the election and the appointment of Ebrahim Raisi as the regime’s next president.

Raisi takes office in August. He is currently the head of the country’s judiciary, having been appointed to that position by Supreme Leader Khamenei in 2019. A body known as the Guardian Council is tasked with safeguarding Khameni’s authority through a vetting process for candidates to high office. This year it blocked the candidacy of all but seven of nearly 600 individuals who initially registered. On the understanding that Khamenei had made his choice of Rouhani’s successor, the Council left Raisi without serious challengers.

As head of the judiciary, Raisi oversaw initial attacks on participants in the November 2019 uprising, as well as the interrogation and torture of thousands of activists who were arrested during and after those protests.

In that uprising, more than 1,500 demonstrators were killed, and at least 12,000 were arrested. Amnesty International later released a report, which stated that the torture of those detainees had begun immediately and continued for several months.

The torture seemed to confirm what had already been implied by Raisi’s initial conduct as judiciary chief; that Iran had entered a period during which repression of dissent would be more intense than it had been for years, or perhaps even decades.

This reflects Raisi’s background, which is defined, above all else, by his leading role in the massacre of 30,000 political prisoners during the summer of 1988, where a majority were members and supporters of Iran’s organised opposition, the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK).

As one of the members of the Tehran “death commission” that interrogated political prisoners over their affiliations before sending them to the gallows, Raisi bears responsibility for a large portion of these mass executions.

The Iranian people are well aware of this, and most recognize that Raisi’s appointment by the Supreme Leader is a symbol of the regime’s approval not only of the recent crackdowns on protesters but also of a massacre that has been described as a crime against humanity and one of the worst crimes in Iran’s modern history.

This is not just a trivial detail of the potentially record-low voter turnout. It is a sign of much more than the rejection of this electoral process or any of the other “travesties” that the regime has overseen in the past. It is in fact the rejection of the regime in its entirety. It will ultimately be a sign of continued support for the message of the 2018 and 2019 uprisings, which was unequivocally a message of regime change and democratic governance as an alternative to the ruling theocratic dictatorship.

The international community must be aware of this and alter its Iran policy of appeasement accordingly. More popular protests and the regime’s crackdown in response to these protests are inevitable. All major world powers will soon have to decide whether they will stand with the Iranian people against their repressive government.

Hossein Abedini is deputy director the Office of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) in the United Kingdom.  

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