Hardliners: Voting Supremely Important; Reformists: Meh!

The push by many loyalists of the Islamic Republic of Iran to raise voter turnout in the upcoming elections is reviving memories of a formula that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei first uttered eight years ago before the election of the Tenth Majles: “Even those who reject the Nezam should participate to preserve the prestige of the country. It is possible for someone to not accept me but yet participate in the election.” Should voters turn out in large numbers, authorities are likely to trumpet it as the Iranian people’s endorsement of the hardliners who are expected to consolidate their political gains.

Voter turnout has fallen considerably since 2016 due to a number of actions by the state that have eroded public support and goodwill for the Nezam: the repressive state response to protests in 2017 and 2019, the deliberate downing of the Ukrainian airliner in January 2020, the state’s criminally negligent response to the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 and much of 2021, and the unbending refusal of authorities to acknowledge the grievances of the Woman, Life, Freedom protesters in 2022. This time around, Khamenei has not repeated the old 2016 formula. Instead, he has pulled out bigger guns, claiming it is incumbent on Iranian voters as pious Muslims to vote in the upcoming elections. (Research into the sources of Islam is unlikely to turn up supporting evidence for such a claim.) Friday prayer imams, who act as Khamenei’s surrogates throughout the country, continue to repeat the idea in various forms, as do other functionaries of the state. The supreme leader, however, seems to have not considered that his statement completely left out Iran’s non-Muslim citizens, who are not bound by the religious pronouncements of the Shiite clerical establishment. Perhaps in recognition of this fact, Kazem Seddiqi, one of Tehran’s interim prayer leaders, said in his Friday sermon, “Even those who have no religious motivation should participate in the election.” Seddiqi then proceeded to undercut his own rationale, claiming that Iran was the country of the Hidden Imam, the Prophet Muhammad, Ali and Fatimah—in that order. The preacher at the Friday prayers in Shiraz was more dramatic, even comical. The youth should give their elders piggyback rides to the polling stations, he advised.

Such advice to participate in the vote is running into strong headwinds of opposition because, considering that no serious reformist candidate survived the Guardian Council’s vetting process, many see these as sham elections. Responding to a recent declaration by 110 prominent reformists urging participation, reformist journalist Ahmad Zeidabadi said pointedly, “When it is not your time, any struggle or impatience will only make things worse.” Wait for the next opportunity, he advised them. Reformist icon and former president Mohammad Khatami, who has been something of a fence-sitter about voter involvement this time around, put it quite subtly. It is not reformists who have turned their backs on the Nezam, he said, but rather the Nezam that has turned its back on reformists. This gives the prospective reformist voter little guidance on which way he or she should go. Reformist journalist and thinker Abbas Abdi was far clearer. On his X (Twitter) account, he posted a photograph of a billboard that read: “Not voting = voting for the status quo.” He amended it to: “Voting = defending the status quo.”

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