Aswat Asharq Al-Awsat :
Mustafa Fahs

Aswat Asharq Al-Awsat : The Two Mutinies of the Iranian Elections

The Iranian electorate’s refusal to obey the authorities has undercut the regime’s legitimacy. By abstaining in such large numbers, the electorate has deprived the authorities of the popular legitimacy they desperately need. Regardless of whether we accept the official turnout rates or the opposition's estimates, the figures show that most Iranians turned a deaf ear to the Supreme Leader.

Only a minority segment of Iranian society - driven either by ideology or personal interest - took part, and they did indeed flock to the polls “enthusiastically” as per President Ebrahim Raisi. Thus, there is now a wedge in Iranian society dividing a large segment (i.e., a near-supermajority) that opposes the regime and a limited minority segment that supports it.

The first mutiny, that is, individual Iranians’ mutiny against their regime, can itself be split into two parts. First, we have abstention. According to the opposition, the turnout rate has plummeted to less than 35 percent. This disappointed the Supreme Leader, who had called on citizens, before the elections, to: "Make our friends happy and disappointed those who wish us harm. To those who are hesitant about whether or not to vote, my last words are that you do not need an “Istikhara” (seeking guidance from God through prayer and supplications) to know whether you should do good.”

Second, we have the ballots of the opposition who did cast votes in the Islamic Consultative Assembly and the Assembly of Experts elections. There was a remarkable increase in the number of invalid votes (also known as spoiled ballots) this year. In Tehran alone, around half a million voters decided to demonstrate their opposition in this way - a political slap by those who decided to participate in the elections but preferred to choose nothing over the choices available to them.

Previously, punitive voting had been a viable strategy, and it was adopted by the voters of Iranian political movements opposed to the regime. We saw these protest votes in several electoral cycles: these citizens opposed to the regime would vote for any candidate standing against the regime's candidate, even if no candidate represented the opposition movement.

In the mind of much of this substantial voting bloc that had preferred not to boycott, choosing, until recently, to bet on change through constitutional frameworks, this punitive voting strategy used to be the clearest way to express political position. However, after growing frustrated with how far the regime has gone in monopolizing power, the state, and control over public institutions, a substantial segment of this block has decided to “spoil the ballot,” in extremely high numbers that cannot be explained by accidental irregularities. In other words, these votes were not invalidated because voters had accidentally made a mistake, they deliberately “spoiled the ballot” to send a message.

These "invalid ballots" were the real challenge posed to the candidates selected by the Constitutional Council (aka Guardian Council). Most of these candidates share the same ideological and political leanings, with others barred from running to ensure this strand of the regime’s victory. However, the Constitutional Council was surprised by the immense number of votes in favor of no one.

The second mutiny was the courageous decision made by former Iranian president Mr. Mohammad Khatami. By opting to abstain, he took a serious step towards rupturing with the regime, unequivocally aligning himself with the opposition forces whose stance has gone beyond demands for reforming the regime and even preserving its heritage.

Khatami’s decision not to take part means that a major opposition figure has disassociated himself from the regime and that reformist elites have stayed out of the elections. At this critical juncture in which the regime is managing a transitional phase and preparing for a post-Khamenei Iran, the reformist current moved out of the gray area and made where he stands abundantly clear.

This sends a message in two directions. First, it is a message to his partners in the moderate camp, led by former president Hassan Rouhani, who had been barred from running for the Assembly of Experts: the phase of hedging and calibrated opposition has come to an end. The second message is to the regime, which now only represents one political and ideological shade: the relationship between the regime, the opposition, and the tense streets, will not stay the same after these elections, and the regime’s political and popular legitimacy has been undermined by these elections contested by candidates that voters could hardly distinguish from one another.