Candidates in the Iranian presidential election have always been rigorously screened, and those who were not sufficiently loyal to the Islamic revolution have been disqualified. Within those boundaries, contenders had different views on easing domestic restrictions or dealing with the West, and sometimes the winner was a surprise.
Now even minor differences that give voters the appearance of being elected appear to have been eliminated.
Candidates for the June 18 elections either hold deeply conservative positions consistent with those of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, or they are little known, with no voter base and no chance of winning.
And one candidate in particular leads: Ebrahim Raisi, the current head of justice, appointed by Mr. Khamenei, who has been involved for a long time Human rights violationsand who lost in 2013 in a surprise victory for outgoing President Hassan Rouhani.
With no credible challenger, Mr Raisi is expected to win this time around. Any serious competition was won from the race. Even some members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, known for their strong hostility to political differences, called the election anti-democratic.
The Guardian Council, a 12-person body responsible for approving candidates, disqualified anyone who could postpone the vote against Mr Raisi, who served as prosecutor and judge overseeing the executions of minors and dissidents.
On Thursday, Mr Khamenei publicly endorsed the Guardian Council’s final decision. He said the councilors had done their duty and urged the public not to “listen to anyone who says it’s useless, don’t go to the polls, we won’t go.”
The decision of the council and the approval of Mr. Khamenei have shaken political circles. The reformist party announced for the first time that it had no candidate in the running.
Analysts say Mr Raisi’s presidency would finalize a plan in which conservatives would consolidate power, take over all branches of government, marginalize any reform faction and severely curtail internal power struggles within the Islamic Republic.
“Today we are witnessing an intrepid attack on any semblance of Republican principles in favor of the absolute power of the Supreme Leader,” said Abbas Milani, director of Iranian Studies at Stanford University.
The appearance of a technical victory for the 60-year-old Raisi has led to louder and broader calls for an election boycott and increased voter apathy among ordinary Iranians. Polls predict a low turnout. The latest poll, conducted this week by the student election bureau ISPA, found that only 37 percent of voters would like to cast ballots.
With Mr Khamenei’s allies already in control of parliament and the judiciary, assuming the presidency could reshape the ongoing negotiations to revive the 2015 nuclear deal.
President Donald Trump abandoned the pact three years ago in what he termed a “maximum pressure” campaign to get more concessions out of Iran, but his policies appear to have only strengthened the hardliners.
President Biden wants to seek a broader deal with Iran that restricts not only its nuclear program, but also its missile development and involvement in conflicts in the region. But Mr Raisi and his group refuse to make concessions to the West.
What particularly surprised political circles in Iran was the disqualification of prominent political figures such as Ali Larijani, a centrist Conservative and former parliamentary speaker, and current Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri, who is believed to be most closely associated with Mr Rouhani.
Mr. Larijani belongs to a very prominent political family and was appointed by Mr. Khamenei to negotiate a 25-year economic deal between Iran and China. Mr. Larijani was seen as a candidate who could get reformist votes.
While a former president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and a former minister, Mostafa Tajzadeh, the lead reform candidate, were also disqualified, their removal from the race came as no surprise. Mr Ahmadinejad, who was once considered closely associated with Mr Khamenei, has increasingly assumed the stance of an eccentric opposition figure. Mr. Tajzadeh, who had been detained for several years for his political activism, had called for the constitution to be revised.
“This is an election campaign,” said Tajzadeh on Wednesday in a virtual town hall that he hosted on the clubhouse’s shared chat site, which was attended by at least 12,000 Iranians. “We all have to speak up and say that people will not accept the legitimacy of the result. People are not going to take part in this theater. “
Mr Ahmadinejad has also said he will not vote and denounced the Guardian Council. “Why don’t you just pull the republic together and say this regime is ours and nobody has the right to protest at all?” Ahmadinejad said in a live Instagram lecture he hosted in front of thousands of viewers on Wednesday.
Even Mr Raisi expressed concern, saying he had worked with the Guardian Council to reinstate some of the candidates so that the elections would be more competitive.
The council has not made public its reasons for disqualifying candidates, only stating that it has approved those who, in the current circumstances, are deemed fit to run the country.
In early May, the council announced new admission requirements to narrow down the race, with the exception of those who have dual citizenship, are younger than 40 or older than 75, have a prison sentence, or have no administrative experience.
Kian Abdullahi, editor-in-chief of the Tasnim news agency, which is affiliated with the Revolutionary Guard, criticized the Council’s final list of candidates on Twitter, a notable note of discord from a group that has long symbolized Iran’s power base.
He said candidates have to be acceptable to the public and that “the people have to decide”.
Elections in the Islamic Republic were never considered democratic by the Western definition. Opponents of the government cannot run, and the process of screening candidates and counting ballots is not transparent. In 2009, the election result was widely viewed as rigged and sparked months of anti-government unrest.
Even so, in elections there were candidates from different political groups and political areas on the ballot, and the winner was not a matter of course – rivals fought and fought fiercely. The public was engaged. Celebrities and pop stars were even enlisted to support competitors.
The months leading up to the presidential elections in Iran usually brought a partisan atmosphere to cities, with young people gathering on the streets at night with posters, slogans and waving flags of their favorite candidate. The security apparatus tolerated these fleeting moments of open bourgeois discourse, partly because they gave the appearance of a population that supported the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic and took part in its elections.
This time around, the election fever seems extremely muted – partly due to the pandemic, but also due to an underlying apathy. Tehran and most of the cities are quiet, campaign posters are rare, and rallies and city halls take place online. Iranians have faced pandemic mismanagement, slow vaccine enrollment, a collapsing economy and social oppression for a year.
“I don’t know anyone around me who votes,” said Aliyar, a 44-year-old engineer, who asked that his full name not be used for fear of retaliation. “Because it has proven to us again and again that nothing will change when we vote. It is hopeless.”
In addition to Mr Raisi, the other candidates are Mohsen Rezaee, former commander in chief of the Revolutionary Guards; Abdolnasser Hemmati, the Governor of the Iranian Central Bank; Mohsen Mehralizadeh, former governor of Isfahan Province; Amirhossein Ghazizadeh-Hashemi, a persistent lawmaker; Alireza Zakani, a former diehard lawmaker; and Saeed Jalili, a Conservative and former nuclear negotiator.
Mr Raisi, Mr Rezaee and Mr Jalili have previously applied for the presidency without success. The other candidates are not widely known.
Abdullah Momeni, a Tehran-based political activist who had joined the reform faction, said the final list shows that die-hard conservatives have strengthened power.
The Islamic Republic, he said, “has completely disregarded public opinion and is doing so at no cost and destroying any potential chances of dissent”.