“However much you remove yourself from politics, you’re still inside this system” read the meme imploring me to vote during my last visit to Tehran in 2016. It was one of the many dozens of Facebook, Telegram, and text messages delivered by grassroots activists anxious to secure a friendly parliament for Iran’s incumbent president, Hassan Rouhani. Their shoestring get-out-the-vote campaign—loosely advanced on social media and amplified by a sprawling network of classmates, teachers, and second cousins—ran alongside an official state apparatus determined to signal its legitimacy to the world by producing a healthy turnout on election day. All told, more than 61 percent of Iran’s eligible voters showed up to vote in an off-year legislative election, nearly double the 36 percent participation rate in the 2014 U.S. Congressional elections.
As Iran nears the end of another election season, its 12th for president and the 35th overall since 1979, dozens of analysts are already explaining why elections in Iran do not really matter or, should Rouhani lose, why they do. Most point to the limited range of choices offered to Iranian voters as proof that the vote there is mostly theater, cover for the feckless pursuit of power between elites in an autocratic system. Some use the perceived charade as a pretense to renew the call for regime change in Tehran, left dormant under the Obama administration and its peaceful resolution of the nuclear issue in 2015.
Almost none of these analysts will say much, if anything, about the nearly 40 million citizens who are expected to turn up to vote of their own accord on May 19, or why they bother. Voting in Iran, one is left to imagine, is only for the true believers or for the easily duped, participants in a collective act of dissembling that adds up to nothing.
In fact, however, many Iranians vote because they do not believe in their system; they vote precisely out of a lack of faith.
“Voting is a religious duty and a holy act,” they are told by those in charge, and so citizens double down on the premise as an act of vigilance, determined to meet the state on its own terms as well as to bear witness should the authorities deny citizens their votes. Against the fevered proclamations of radicals on either side of the Iranian political spectrum, the grassroots opposition stands firmly for the belief that presence at the ballot box is prevention, and that prevention is “better than a cure.”
Iran’s diminished democracy offers few guarantees, but one certainty is that low turnout opens a path for reactionary elements to take control of the government. This was the painful lesson of the era of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose rise to power was abetted by a boycott of the 2005 elections by the public. Disillusioned with the reform movement of outgoing president Mohammad Khatami, and convinced that it made little difference who occupied the presidency, many Iranians stayed home on election day. Just under 28 million Iranians, 60 percent of the voting population, bothered to vote in the second-round runoff between Ahmadinejad and the late Hassan Rafsanjani—anemic by Iranian standards. It wasn’t long before a bevy of incompetents took advantage of the voters’ apathy, rushing in to occupy the political field abandoned by those holding out for more democratic conditions in Iran.
It was a mistake that many in the opposition have sworn to never repeat. In 2009, some 40 million Iranians, a record 85 percent of the eligible population, cast their ballots in the presidential election in an effort to put Ahmadinejad and his allies out of office. The implausible reelection of Ahmadinejad sparked Iran’s worst crisis since the overthrow of the monarchy, producing the Green Movement protests that paralyzed much of the country for nearly a year.
Nearly 37 million would turn out in 2013, despite the violent suppression of the Green Movement just four years earlier. They were determined to vindicate the movement’s imprisoned leaders, Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karrobi, and to finally force an answer to its slogan, “Where is my vote?” That these many voters were empowered to do so by the very system that they oppose is the story missing from the coverage leading into this month’s presidential election.
There is a sense among some Iranians that the current impasse between state and society actually offers the best situation for all involved. Although electoral participation ensures the survival of the Islamic system, as so many critics have correctly pointed out, the reform movement does want to sustain a political structure that at the very least prevents Iran from tumbling into chaos. Trapped in the logic of a political system that craves participation, and chastened by the street protests that for a time appeared to put the very survival of the 1979 revolution at risk, Iran’s authorities appear willing to go along for now despite the risk that a popular president will emerge to challenge an unpopular leadership.
Examples of what could happen if they don’t go along are not difficult to find, and lie within easy reach in the lived experiences of Iran’s regional neighbors, in Egypt and Iraq. At stake, as so many voters told me in 2013 and again in 2016, is whether Iran will avoid becoming “another Syria,” the site of a bloody civil war that invites the intervention of foreign powers. Participating in a system, no matter how flawed, is better than having no system at all. Seen in this light, an election is not a mere one-off, an opportunity for a revolutionary breakthrough leading to the demise of the current system; it represents one piece in an open-ended process of incremental reform and progress.
There is no mystery to all this, no “Persian paradoxes” for analysts to solve. If anything, the traumatic events of recent years have invited a new and unexpected transparency on the part of the public and the authorities alike. “Even those who don’t believe in the system and the leadership,” Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei implored in an astonishing statement last spring, “come to the ballots, as the election belongs to the nation.” Eager to avoid a reprise of 2009, the electorate has, in earnest, taken him up on his offer to put the country first and believe in civil redemption. Their participation in elections is still more about hope than an expression of bad faith.