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  • Iran’s Peculiar ElectionThe Role of Ideology
  • Ladan Boroumand (bio)

Iran's June 2005 presidential elections caught the world by surprise. All the reformist candidates failed in the first round, while the runoff saw pragmatic conservative ex-president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and his platform of more social (as distinct from political) freedom lose to economic populist and Islamist hard-liner Mahmoud Ahmedinejad. Experts have scrambled to explain what the results say about Iran's voters. After opting four times for reformism since 1997, have they renounced such aspirations in favor of a shift back to oil-financed welfarism replete with Khomeini-era slogans against wealth and corruption? Has a reform movement that focused on political rather than socioeconomic issues roused a voter backlash? Or is the result a rebuke of the ruling clerical caste with its violent repressiveness and notoriously ill-gotten wealth?

Such inquiries, which are natural enough in liberal democracies where elections reflect the general will, are misguided in the case of a country where official controls, the legal banning of candidates both before and after votes, and systematic election-rigging are standard. But that does not mean that Iranian elections are unable to repay study. On the contrary, they offer an excellent window on the ideological dynamics that shape the behavior of both Iran's Islamist regime and its prodemocracy opposition as they feel their respective ways through a new international context dominated by the U.S.-led ideological and military war against terror.

To begin with, one might ask why the Islamic Republic, which founds its claim to legitimacy squarely on divine rather than popular sovereignty, [End Page 52] even holds elections. Plainly, they cannot serve the same purpose that they do in a democratic polity, where the people are acknowledged as the source of lawful rule. Yet paradoxical though it may seem, elections are indispensable to the Islamic Republic, which has held votes regularly throughout its history and has used every means from threats to rewards to get people to the polls.

The key question is how popular suffrage and the doctrine of divine sovereignty interact within the regime's political structure. The Islamic Republic's founders rejected elections as a primary source of legitimacy.1 Instead, Article 59 of the constitution reduces them to mere manifestations of "public opinion" and thus reconciles them with divine sovereignty by downgrading their significance. It is small wonder that no candidate can run, and no election result be made official, until the unelected Council of Guardians gives its approval.

Elections help the Islamic Republic shield itself against three recurrent threats. The first threat is religious. Major Shi'ite Muslim ayatollahs both within and outside of Iran continue to question the Khomeini-devised religious arguments on which the Republic rests. High-turnout elections help to make these dissenters seem marginal. The second threat is international. The regime's systematic rights abuses and repressiveness leave it open to international criticism and bad publicity. Elections provide a buffer against foreign as well as clerical criticism, and reassure foreign investors. The third threat is internal and political. The regime is the work of a disparate political coalition, and as such must cope with chronic and potentially fatal factionalism. Elections, as we shall see, help the ruling oligarchy to contain factionalism's destructive effects.

The relative salience of these threats varies with circumstances. During the 1980s, Khomeini arbitrated between the factions, and popular suffrage did not have the heft that it would acquire after he died in 1989 and his successors found themselves facing a growing international challenge to their popular legitimacy. Elections served to project the illusion of a popular regime for foreign observers, but generating high turnout was not a leading concern while Khomeini lived. After he died and was replaced as supreme leader by the far less weighty Ali Khamenei, the clerical oligarchy began turning to elections to help settle its internal conflicts. Popular suffrage within the constraints of "God's sovereignty" would allow factions of the ruling elite to hand offices back and forth among themselves in a regular and orderly fashion, while candidacies could join the list of perquisites handed out to regime "insiders."

Voting and...