Iran: Undemocratic election cements status quo

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Analysis by FIDH and the League for the Defence of Human Rights in Iran (LDDHI)

On 18 June 2021, Iran will hold its 13th presidential election. Since its establishment in 1979, the Islamic Republic of Iran has regularly organized parliamentary and presidential elections, but these polls have consistently failed to meet international standards related to elections.

The conditions under which the 18 June election will take place are inconsistent with Iran’s obligations under Article 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) to hold “genuine elections” that guarantee the “free expression of the will of the electors.”

The framework under which the electoral process is taking place shows that the Iranian government has failed to address the concerns expressed by United Nations (UN) human rights monitoring mechanisms [1] and recent UN General Assembly Resolutions. [2] For example, during the latest review of Iran’s implementation of the ICCPR in October 2011, the UN Human Rights Committee expressed concerns over the low number of candidates approved to run during the 2009 presidential election, the blockage of cell phone signals and opposition websites, and the harassment and detention of political activists, members of religious and ethnic communities, and women’s rights activists, among other concerns. The Committee recommended that Iran take “adequate steps to guarantee that elections are conducted in a free and transparent manner, in full conformity with the Covenant, including through the establishment of an independent monitoring commission.” [3]

Iran’s President: Under the Supreme Leader’s thumb

The President is not the highest executive official in Iran. The Supreme Leader is. Article 57 of the Constitution empowers the Supreme Leader to supervise and exert control over the executive, legislative, and judicial branches and other key state institutions. Article 60 states that the President and the ministers exercise control over the “functions of the executive,” with the exception of those “directly placed under the jurisdiction of the Leadership.” These matters are outlined in Article 110, which grants the Supreme Leader extensive powers, including: the formulation of policies and the supervision of their implementation; command of the armed forces; declarations of war; and appointments to key institutions (including the judiciary and the armed forces). The Supreme Leader also has the power to dismiss the President, if the Supreme Court finds him guilty of violations of constitutional duties or Parliament finds him to be incompetent.

No impartial and independent election administration authority

Two entities, which are neither impartial nor independent, oversee the presidential election process:

1) The Ministry of Interior organizes the voting, the counting of votes, and other operational aspects of the election through the Elections Central Executive Board under the watch of the Central Board for Supervision over Elections, which the Guardian Council [see next paragraph] appoints. [4] Supervision and Executive Boards at the local level are also established.

2) The 12-member Guardian Council of the Constitution, which holds the mandate of interpreting the Constitution of Iran and reviewing and approving all laws passed by Parliament, has the full authority regarding other election-related matters, including: interpreting election laws; vetting candidates; overseeing electoral processes; receiving and adjudicating complaints over alleged fraud and irregularities; confirming or rejecting the election results; and notifying and directing the Ministry of Interior to announce lists of candidates and the election results.

The Guardian Council is composed of six senior clerical members, appointed by Iran’s Supreme Leader, and six jurist members who are appointed by Parliament from among those nominated by the Head of the Judiciary – another Supreme Leader appointee. The six clerical members hold significant influence over the Council’s decisions regarding the election process, and a majority of seven members is needed to take decisions related to issues not concerning Sharia matters, e.g. election-related matters, such as confirmation of candidates.

Institutional discrimination restricts the right to be elected

Election laws effectively prevent all members of the political opposition, government critics, women, and non-Shiites from standing as candidates.

Article 35 of the Presidential Election Law, which directly quotes Article 115 of the Constitution, is discriminatory and inconsistent with international standards for election. It states that presidential candidates must “be political and religious rejal,” [5] and “faithful and adherent to the foundations of the Islamic Republic of Iran and to the official religion of the country.” This provision violates Article 25 of the ICCPR, which specifies that “every citizen shall have the right and the opportunity, without any of the distinctions mentioned in article 2 and without unreasonable restrictions […] to vote and to be elected at genuine periodic elections […].” Article 2 of the ICCPR bars discrimination on the grounds of sex, religion, and political opinion, among other criteria. Women candidates have consistently registered as candidates in all 13 presidential elections in Iran since 1979, but the Guardian Council of the Constitution has always disqualified them.

Members of the political opposition do not even take the risk to stand as candidates. The last time any candidate associated with the opposition registered - and withdrew before the election - was in the first presidential election in 1980. Some government critics who register occasionally are disqualified. No known government critic registered to run in the upcoming election.

Finally, under Article 12 of the Constitution, the “official religion of the country” is the 12-imam Ja’fari school of the Shi’a. This clause, read in conjunction with Article 115 of the Constitution, bars not only followers of the three officially recognized non-Islamic religions, [6] but also all non-Shiite Muslims - including Sunni Muslims - from standing for President. Consequently, the majority of Iranian Kurds, Baloch, Turkmen, and a portion of the Arab population who are Sunni Muslims, are barred from running for President.

Tight media restrictions, journalists threatened

Citizens have very little access to independent and impartial information about the candidates and the election process. This is the result of the Iranian authorities’ tight grip on all media - online and offline - and their heavy censorship of independent news and analysis. These curbs are inconsistent with international standard related to elections. [7]

Several Iranian journalists seeking to report on the background of presidential candidate Ebrahim Ra’eesi’s background and his alleged involvement in human rights violations have received warnings from judicial authorities and have been threatened by law enforcement agencies, including the Cyber Police and the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps’ (IRGC’s) Cyber Unit. [8] Most social media platforms and messaging apps remain banned and not accessible without a Virtual Private Network (VPN).

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei and other authorities have warned against a boycott of the election [9] and security organizations have threatened boycotters. [10] An unknown number of individuals have been detained for calling for an election boycott. [11]

Decreasing voter turnout?

Despite failing to adhere to international standards for elections, Iranian authorities have relied on high voter turnouts to claim the elections are legitimate. In some of the past presidential elections, there were widespread allegations of tampering with turnout and voting figures. In the 2017 election, the official turnout was 73%. [12] The high turnout was mostly attributed to President Hassan Rouhani government’s success in securing the nuclear agreement with the international community and the resulting hope for improvement in living conditions, but also due, in part, to critics who urged participation to prevent the election of a “worse” candidate, i.e. Ra’eesi.

There are indications that voter turnout in the upcoming election may fall to at an all-time low. A poll conducted by the Iranian Students Polling Agency (ISPA) on 26 and 27 May 2021 found that only 36% of respondents said they would vote on 18 June, down from 43% 10 days earlier. [13] This drop may be due in part to the disqualifications of several candidates who were likely challengers to frontrunner Ebrahim Ra’eesi, including former Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani, Vice-President Es’hagh Jahangiri, and former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad - who subsequently said he would not vote in the election.

Presidential candidates: The not-so-magnificent seven

The Guardian Council rejected 585 (or 98%) of the 592 candidates who had registered to contest the election. All 40 female candidates who had registered were rejected as well. The disqualification of nearly all candidates and all female candidates has been a consistent trend of previous presidential elections [see table below]. Two Guardian Council members recently stated that the Council could disqualify any previously approved candidates if they appear to be unfit during the debates. [14] The Guardian Council’s decisions concerning the eligibility of presidential candidates cannot be appealed.

Elections Total candidates registered [15] Female candidates registered Total candidates approved Percentage of rejections
2009 476 42 4 99%
2013 686 30 9 98%
2017 1,636 137 6 99%
2021 592 40 7 98%

Ebrahim Ra’eesi [alternatively spelled Raisi]: The frontrunner, and a cleric politically close to the Supreme Leader, Ra’eesi was appointed by the Supreme Leader as Head of the Judiciary on 7 March 2019. [16] He was a presidential candidate in 2017, but lost the race to the incumbent Hassan Rouhani. [17] He has held various judicial positions since his early 20s. Ra’eesi is known as a hardliner, openly backed by hardline clerical figures, organizations, and newspapers, and tacitly by the IRGC. Even some members of the Guardian Council of the Constitution, who must be neutral under the law, took part in his rallies in 2017. Ra’eesi, who studied theology with the current Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, for some years, has also been mentioned as a possible candidate to succeed Khamenei. [18] Ra’eesi was appointed as Deputy Prosecutor of Tehran from 1985 until 1989, before being appointed Prosecutor from 1989 to 1994. During his time as Deputy Prosecutor of Tehran, he was a member of a Commission appointed by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the first Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, to try political activists. The Commission was effectively a kangaroo court of last resort. In 1988, the Commission, which has been infamously referred to as the “Death Commission,” retried thousands of political prisoners already serving prison sentences in summary trials lasting only a few minutes. As a result, several thousand were sentenced to death and executed in the span of a few months. [19] Later, in his capacity as Deputy Head of the Judiciary from 2004 to 2014, Ra’eesi played an important role in the repression and execution of protestors after the controversial 2009 presidential election. [20] As the prosecutor of the Special Court for Clerics from 2012 to present, he has silenced many clerical critics. [21] Under his leadership, the judiciary has also been responsible for many executions, including several dissidents who were arrested after the widespread nationwide street protests in 2017-2018 and in 2019. [22] Ra’eesi is on the US list of sanctions imposed against human rights violators. [23]

Mohsen Rezaei: As a former commander of the IRGC from 1980 to 1997, Rezaei effectively controlled the Basij Resistance Force, a militia dealing with internal security and responsible for brutal and often fatal suppression of protests. [24] He ran unsuccessfully for Parliament in 2000 and for President in 2005 (when he withdrew before election day), 2009 (when he obtained only 1.7% of the votes), and 2013 (when he received 10.5% of the votes). [25] Rezaei is also on the INTERPOL’s “wanted list” for “crimes against life and health, hooliganism/vandalism/damage,” for his alleged involvement, as IRGC commander, in a terrorist attack in Argentina in 1994. [26] As the Secretary of the Expediency Council, which arbitrates any dispute between the Guardian Council and Parliament, he has been influential in blocking efforts by the government of incumbent President Rouhani to join the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), a global money laundering and terrorist financing watchdog. [27]

Saeed Jalili: The Iranian government’s chief nuclear negotiator from 2007 to 2013 under former President Ahmadinejad, Jalili was a Deputy Foreign Minister for Euro-American affairs, and is now a member of the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC). He previously ran for President in 2013 and received about 11% of the votes. [28] Jalili is currently a member of the Expediency Council. In his role with the Expediency Council, he has blocked the government’s efforts to join the FATF. [29] In 2001, he became Senior Director for policy planning at the Office of Iran’s Supreme Leader. It is rumored that he will withdraw in favor of Ebrahim Ra’eesi before election day.

Amir Hossein Ghazizadeh Hashemi: A surgeon by training, Hashemi is a hardline Member of Parliament (MP) who has been representing the Mashhad constituency since 2008. Since May 2020, he has served as first Deputy Speaker of Parliament. It is rumored that he will withdraw in favor of Ebrahim Ra’eesi before election day.

Mohsen Mehralizadeh: An engineer by training, Mehralizadeh went on to obtain a PhD in Financial Administration. He has held numerous government positions, including as Deputy President in charge of the Physical Education Organization under President Khatami, and Deputy Director of the Atomic Energy Organization, Governor-General of Khorasan Province, and Governor-General of Isfahan Province. He was initially disqualified from running for president in 2005, but was later confirmed and polled last with 4.38% of the vote. [30] Although considered to be a reformist, Mehralizadeh is running for election as an independent, as he did in 2005, and not as a candidate of the Reforms Front list. [31]

Abdolnaser Hemmati: Hemmati served as Governor of the Central Bank from 2018 to May 2021, when President Rouhani replaced him after he registered as a presidential candidate. A career technocrat and a university professor, he served in multiple government positions, including as Ambassador to China, as IRIB Vice-President, and as a member of the economic committee of the SNSC.

Alireza Zakani: A conservative MP, he represented the Tehran constituency from 2004 to 2016, and was re-elected as MP for Qom in 2020. He registered as a candidate in the 2013 and 2017 presidential elections but was disqualified. In early 1999, Zakani served as commander of the Student Branch of the Basij Resistance Force in Tehran, and from 2000 to 2003 as head of the National Students Basij Organization, under the command of the IRGC. [32] In this capacity, he was involved in the brutal suppression of the widespread student protests in Tehran in July 1999. [33] He has been allegedly involved in financial scandals and it is believed that he will withdraw in favor of Ebrahim Ra’eesi before election day.

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