Why I am boycotting the Iranian elections in 2020

Published by the New Arab

Four years ago, in a meeting room in San Francisco, I joined a group of Iranian dissidents, including a number of former MPs, in a fractious debate on a familiar question: Should we, or should we not boycott the 2016 Iranian elections?

I advocated voting for candidates who could support the administration of President Rouhani as he was about to begin implementation of the Iranian Nuclear Deal which had been inked the previous summer after years of negotiations with the United States and other world powers.

Elections under the Islamic Republic have long had a contradictory nature. In the first post-revolutionary parliamentary elections in 1980, a relatively wide range of candidates was allowed to run, despite many irregularities which helped the ruling Islamic Republican Party.

The communist Tudeh Party openly ran its candidates as did many others. But the restrictions were to come very quickly.

In the next round of the by-elections, all Tudeh members were banned from running on the account of being Marxists ie., “not proper Muslims”. The elections quickly became limited only to those groups who unquestionably supported the rule of Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic and its first Supreme Leader.

Ever since then, all candidates are vetted and only those who are considered insiders to the ruling caste of the Islamic Republic are allowed to run – and even among them, entire factions have often been disqualified.

Anybody who voices any serious criticism of the current Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, or the Islamic Republic’s system has never stood a chance. With the exception of five seats reserved for religious minorities, every other candidate has to be a devout Muslim, an Islamist, and a supporter of Iran’s system.

Any candidate who would openly align with my values as a democratic socialist would most likely be in prison and certainly nowhere near being allowed to run for the Iranian parliament.

So why did I advocate voting in the 2016 elections?

The simple answer is one of political strategy. While the Iranian elections have long been heavily exclusionary, they have also often been meaningfully competitive. The reformist mass movement launched following the election of President Mohammad Khatami in 1997 was led by politicians who were all among the founders of the Islamic Republic.

But their dissatisfaction with the regime they had helped create pushed them into meaningfully fighting for democratisation and for advocacy of people’s rights. The 1979 revolution, after all, had been led by lofty ideals that the oligarchic militarised dictatorship run by Khamenei had clearly failed to fulfill.

This meant that some of my political heroes in recent years have been MPs in that very restricted parliament of ours. I speak of people like Fateme Haghighatjoo, a student activist who became a Tehran MP in the historic 2000 elections and used her platform for fierce advocacy of women’s rights.

Or Parvane Salahshoori, another female Tehran MP from the reformist faction who used her seat in the parliament to resolutely back the recent Iranian protests.

In 2016, voting meant that we could send people like Salahshoori to the parliament as opposed to the ultraconservatives and their vision of a repressive Iran. It also meant endorsing President Rouhani’s agenda of a diplomatic truce with the West, which many hoped would lead to openings domestically, and his pragmatic modernisation agenda which put him at odds with Khamenei and the ultraconservatives.

But in the 2020 elections, no such options are on the table. These are the least competitive elections Iran has held in years. The vetting body Guardian Council, whose all 12 members are selected directly or indirectly by Khamenei, has thrown out the candidacy of more than 7,000 people, including at least 80 sitting MPs and vast majority of reformist candidates.

These elections are eerily reminiscent of 2004 when sitting MPs like Haghighatjoo and her reformist comrades were barred from running. But it’s even worse now. Because in the 16 years since, the circle of those allowed to run has become ever narrower.

The 2020 elections are a mostly pre-determined race between different conservative and ultraconservative factions who will compete over strict loyalty to Khamenei and over different shades of authoritarian technocracy and populist phraseology without political content.

There is no room for meaningful reformist participation. This is why the High Policy Council of Reformists has refused to endorse any candidates in Tehran and in a total of 22 out of 31 provinces in Iran. Major figures such as Mostafa Tajzade, another political hero of mine and a former deputy minister who spent years in prison following the 2009 crackdown, have boycotted the elections for the first time.

Perhaps even more poignant for me, is what a close relative – a teacher in her 50s – wrote in a family WhatsApp group. Ever since her teenage years in 1979, she has been a proud revolutionary, whose strict hijab is not only a sign of personal piety, but one of devotion to her particular brand of Islamist values.

“For the first time in my life, I am not voting,” she wrote. “We are among the people and we see how much misery there is. We can’t even find a lesser evil to vote for anymore! And the parliament doesn’t really matter anyway. This house is ruined in its very foundations,” the last line echoing a sonnet from the medieval Persian poet, Saadi.

Such a belief – that reform has become impossible – has grown since the obvious failures of the Rouhani administration.

But Khamenei’s decision to exclude even the most loyal of his domestic opposition has strengthened the belief in the death of reformism even further.

Reformists who had accepted all limits on their activity and were satisfied with meagre parliamentary representation now don’t even have that option.

This brings to mind a moment in 1964 when Mehdi Bazargan, a former junior cabinet minister who ran a genteel opposition to the Shah, was tried and sentenced to prison.

Speaking in the courtroom, he warned the government that his will be the last generation to “engage in political struggle with constitutional means.”

When all options for legal political participation are closed, revolution becomes the only alternative. Khamenei has always consciously avoided such a situation. But as the Islamic Republic finds itself mired in an all-out crisis, he seems to have gambled on going the extra mile by closing the political space even further.

The struggle for democracy in Iran dates back a century, and the opening of our first-ever parliament in 1906 following the Constitutional Revolution was a milestone on this path. Today proponents of democracy still fight for the ideals of that revolution – as we did when we voted in previous elections.

But on Friday, February 21, progressives will join the masses of people in boycotting the polls. The task of preparing a political alternative to Khamenei’s dictatorship is ever more urgent now.

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