By Sohrab Mobasheri
On Saturday January 9, Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Leader, spoke about the approaching parliamentary and Assembly of Experts elections, saying: “As in the past, we urge that even those who do not believe in the regime or the leadership should come and vote.” He was referring to similar statements he made in 2013 in the lead-up to the presidential elections. On January 9, he said: “All-inclusive participation in the elections will contribute to the stability and strength of the Islamic system, the continuity of security, the credibility and legitimacy of the regime on the international scene and the imposing stature of the Islamic Republic of Iran in the eyes of enemies.”
This raises the question of why someone who is against the regime would want to strengthen it by participating in the elections.
There is also still the question of whether Iranians in exile could or should actually engage in even discussing the elections, which elect representatives inside the country, or if that should be left to Iranians living in Iran.
Healthy and Free Elections
This article has a different concern and that is the general question of which conditions are required to have elections be an effective tool to impose the will of the people and maintain democratic control over power. This could, therefore, be a response to the recent statements of the leader of the Islamic Republic and a query about why he would expect those he addresses to take him seriously.
Many things can be emptied of their content, leaving only a shell. Elections can be named as one of those things.
The reform and evolution of political systems over centuries to transform elections into an efficient mechanism to reflect the will of the people have resulted in public acceptance of certain measures and criteria, and disregard for the latter is often aimed at eviscerating elections of their content.
The most obvious criteria for the elections are clearly related to their transparency, which means real votes have to be counted without any manipulation. Unfortunately, under the Islamic Republic, the necessary guidelines to make sure ballot boxes are filled with real votes have never been in place.
Mohammad Maleki, who in 1979 was close to the interim government that ran the first Islamic Republic referendum, writes: “I was in charge of the Tajrish Shohada Hospital polling station in the March 1979 Referendum. Around noon, one of the local boys who was also a relative of mine (an educated fellow and teacher at one of Shemiran high schools) rushed into the polling station to vote. When I asked for his ID, he just laughed and said, ‘Get out of here! I have already voted in more than 10 polling station so far.”
In the Islamic Republic, the only control over making sure each person gets one vote is by way of a stamp on a page of the birth certificate, and no one checks how many birth certificates are being carried by each person, nor is there any safeguard against duplicated birth certificates.
There has been continued criticism of the Islamic Republic for failing to compile voters lists after 37 years. An organization can easily compromise the health of an election by systematically sending its people to certain polling stations to cast ballots. Regional voter registration could easily prevent such actions.
Voter registration, voter compliance with the actual registration list and the actual vote count should all be carried out under the supervision of representatives from all political parties, including the opposition. Iran has rejected international supervision of the voting process, which is a commonly acceptable way of guaranteeing the health of elections.
However, even the foregoing conditions cannot guarantee fair and free elections. Free elections can only be realized in a country where people are not imprisoned for political activity and there is freedom of media and speech. The contribution of big money in election campaigns should be fully regulated and transparent. There should be freedom of assembly. And most importantly, the right to run in the elections should not arbitrarily withdrawn.
Response to Islamic Republic Leader’s Invitation
The supervisory control of the Guardian Council prevents free and fair elections in Iran. Those who want to run in the elections must be found “eligible” by the Guardian Council, and the council has clearly stated that it looks at political criteria, including the individual’s position regarding the election protests of 2009. This means that anyone who does not subscribe to the condemnatory language and stance of the establishment regarding the election protests of 2009 and its leaders will be disqualified from running in the elections.
Under the leadership of Ayatollah Khamenei, Iranian elections, which have failed since the beginning to meet internationally recognized standards, have deteriorated even further since his Guardian Council appointees have progressively reduced the set of citizens eligible to run in the elections. Never mind the rejected dissidents; in the last presidential election, even Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani, one of the Islamic Republic founders, was found ineligible to run.
As long as the Islamic Republic refuses to take any real steps toward guaranteeing fair and free elections, its invitations to the opposition to participate in the elections will not be taken seriously. Even the opposition groups that feel compelled to take part in the elections to maintain the country’s stability in a war-torn region will begin having doubts about the possible stability that an election lacking the accepted standards of freedom and fairness could yield. Iran cannot have stability so long as a large portion of its citizens is excluded from the centres of power and decision-making. The 37 years of Islamic Republic experience is a testimony to that.