Iran Election 2021: Debate Helped the Nationwide Boycott Campaign

By Mahmoud Hakamian, Originally published in, 10th June 2021

On Saturday, the Iranian regime held the first presidential debate ahead of its June 18 sham election. The spectacle reaffirmed Iranians’ commitment to boycott the election and express support for regime change. Only seven so-called “candidates” are currently set to appear on the ballot this month, out of nearly 600 who registered prior to vetting by the Guardian Council. The current mass election is a formality and shows leading to the installation of the regime’s current Judiciary Chief Ebrahim Raisi – the candidate favored by the mullahs’ Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei – as the next president. 

By all accounts, the debate served mostly to provide Raisi and other members of his faction with an opportunity to blame the regime’s President Hassan Rouhani for the country’s worsening economic problems and the Covid-19 outbreak. But all candidates offered no plan for the current crises, as they are all involved in creating these crises and amplifying them.

This approach effectively shielded the candidates from the responsibility of presenting actual policy preferences that might address the rampant inflation, unemployment, and rising commodity prices that contribute to a situation in which more than 50 percent of the entire Iranian population is living below the poverty line.  

The regime’s authorities and state media outlets have been already anticipating record low levels of voter turnout before the debate, and their own criticism of Saturday’s proceeding suggests that these expectations have only been reinforced. 

The nationwide boycott of the sham election is not just a testament to voter apathy but rather the result of a coordinated boycott campaign being promoted by the Iranian opposition the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK).  MEK’s “Resistance Units” staged public displays in at least 250 locations across the country in April alone, and their efforts persisted through May and into June while drawing the attention of various participants in protests over the economy. 

Those protests include demonstrations by pensioners who have seen their income shrink to the point of not being able to afford the basic necessities of life and by formerly middle-class individuals whose savings were destroyed by government-run investment scams. These and other groups have systematically adopted slogans like “we have seen no justice; we will not vote anymore,” to indicate that they will not participate in the June 18 election, and may not participate in any future elections held under the same system.

This in turn reflects the MEK’s efforts to promote an electoral boycott as a means of “voting for regime change.” The recent protests and the actions of Resistance Units recall attention to the already record-setting low voter turnout in the parliamentary elections of 2020. And that mass boycott came as little surprise in light of its proximity to nationwide anti-regime uprisings in which the residents of nearly 200 localities called for the ouster of all officials and condemned both the “hardline” and the “reformist” factions of the regime.  

Now, it should come as little surprise that the system as a whole is engineering the sham presidential election so a leading figure in the 1988 massacre of 30,000 political prisoners – become president, setting the stage for dramatic consolidation of power following Raisi’s inauguration. 

The prospect for this consolidation of power depends to a great extent upon the way the international community and the Iranian people themselves react to a process that Mohammad Mohaddessin, the Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman for the National Council of Resistance of Iran, described as “a travesty [and] a selection process by a supreme leader who is himself unelected.” 

The NCRI – a coalition of pro-democracy groups including the MEK-  will hold its annual international gathering, and will address the potential changes in Western foreign policy that might support the Iranian people in the wake of Raisi’s ascendance from his position as the country’s chief torturer to the position in which he will have the second most say over foreign and domestic policy, exceeded only by Khamenei. 

The July World Summit on a Free Iran will also assess the effectiveness of the PMOI’s electoral boycott campaign and its implications for a possible return of nationwide uprisings like those seen in January 2018, November 2019, and January 2020. Mr. Mohaddessin said in a press conference last month that a massive boycott will be a precursor to a “looming nationwide uprising waiting in the wings. And when that happens,” he continued, “it will be far more intense and widespread than in previous years. In a nutshell, for Khamenei, this is a battle of survival.” 

“The time has come for the West to end its appeasement and adopt a firm approach,” he said. “It should specifically: echo the call by the Iranian people and condemn this sham election as illegitimate, neither fair nor free; end impunity for the mass murderers who are ruling the country; bring them to justice for the crimes they have committed against humanity in the past four decades; [and] stand on the right side of history and with the Iranian people in their quest for freedom.” 

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