Luciano Zaccara on the Iranian Elections

Luciano Zaccara, Visiting Assistant Professor at Georgetown University SFS-Qatar, delivered a ‎CIRS Focused Discussion on the topic, “Do Elections Matter? Reflections on the 2013 Iranian ‎Presidential Polls” on September 30, 2013. Answering this question in the affirmative at the start ‎of the lecture, he went on to explain why elections are so important to the Iranian political ‎system. Having conducted extensive fieldwork in Iran, Zaccara observed in-situ the last six ‎electoral processes in Iran, including the Presidential Elections of 2005, 2009 and 2013; the ‎Legislatives Elections of 2008 and 2012; and the Municipals and Assembly of Experts elections ‎of 2006. He explained that “electoral life in Iran is very active; in the last 34 years of the ‎Republic’s history there were 32 electoral processes in Iran,” which reveals how significant ‎elections are for the regime to legitimize its political processes and institutions. ‎

Giving some historical background, Zaccara noted that there have been a total of eleven ‎presidential elections since the creation of the Islamic Republic. He added that only two ‎presidents did not complete their terms; one was President Bani-Sadr who was impeached in ‎‎1980, and the other was President Rajai who was assassinated in 1981. The third, fourth, fifth, ‎and sixth presidents, Khamenei, Rafsanjani, Khatami, and Ahmadinejad, were elected for two ‎terms, which is the maximum allowable time in office. Of these, Rafsanjani and Khamenei ‎obtained the highest proportion of votes with 95 percent each. Although Ahmadinejad officially ‎attracted more participation in the electoral process, with figures reaching up to 83 percent, he ‎was the most contested candidate in the history of Iranian elections.‎

Elections in Iran are vital for the survival of the political system despite the various governmental ‎constraints. He explained that “electoral processes have very important functions in Iran, even ‎within the authoritarian limits set by the constitutional and electoral frameworks, which are very ‎particular in the Iranian case.” Despite the uproar regarding the 2009 results, electoral processes ‎in Iran have important functions. “First, they draw much light over the intra-elite dispute. ‎Second, they serve the government to check periodically on the people’s orientation. Third, but ‎no less important, they bring candidates into office, sometimes with unexpected results. And ‎fourth, they determine the government’s composition,” Zaccara argued. ‎

Describing the electoral process itself, Zaccara said that the voting system implemented in Iran in ‎unique: there is no official registration of number of voters; the percentage of voters is calculated ‎on a population census; and citizens can cast their vote in any polling station in the country. All ‎these factors make it difficult for researchers and officials who study voting patterns to ‎determine the exact proportion and geographic location of voters. Because of these unusual ‎factors, many international observers believed that the results of the 2009 elections were ‎fabricated. However, he said, keeping in mind the way in which the electoral framework is ‎implemented in Iran, the history of result publication proves that these kinds of numbers are ‎indeed possible. Zaccara added that a further difficulty for researchers is to compare election ‎results over the years as the official information provided is not always consistent.‎

During the 2013 elections, 675 candidates were officially registered, but only eight made it ‎through the strict criteria to enter the final stages of the elections. Of these, Rohani won the most ‎votes and inaugurated his term as president on August 3, 2013. The week before the elections, ‎Rohani had less than 10 percent of voting intention. However, the day after a key debate where ‎he emphasized the importance of foreign policy, his popularity increased sharply indicating public ‎interest in moving away from the isolationist policies of his predecessor. As a further indicator of ‎the public’s desire for a new type of leadership, he received only 39 percent of votes obtained in ‎Qom, which is considered the center of Shi’a religious clergy, while in peripheral provinces such ‎as Sistan-Baluchistan Rohani obtained more than 73 percent of the vote. In Tehran, the most ‎important and populated district he obtained 48 percent.‎

In conclusion, Zaccara argued that, on the domestic side, the most recent elections in Iran ‎provided a re-legitimation of the political system and a recuperation of the population’s trust ‎after the events of 2009. “My hypothesis around the results is that the popular support towards a ‎particular candidate is not ideological, but highly circumstantial,” he said. On the international ‎front, the elections have helped in the slow recovery of trust and opening up dialogue between ‎Iran and the rest of the world.‎

Luciano Zaccara is the director of the OPEMAM-Observatory on Politics and Elections in the ‎Muslim and Arab World, and an Honorary Research Fellow at the Institute of Arab and Islamic ‎Studies, University of Exeter. His previous positions include a post-doctoral fellowship at ‎Institute of International Studies, Autónoma University of Barcelona, and several research ‎fellowships at the Department of Arab and Islamic Studies, Autónoma University of Madrid. He ‎holds a Ph.D. in Arab and Islamic Studies from Autónoma University of Madrid and a BA in ‎Political Science from the National University of Rosario in Argentina. His publications include ‎the monograph El Enigma de Irán (2006), and the co-edited book Elecciones sin Elección. ‎Procesos Electorales en Medio Oriente y Magreb (2009), as well as many articles on Middle East ‎domestic and international politics, and mainly on Iranian politics and elections. ‎

Article by Suzi Mirgani, Manager and Editor for CIRS Publications.