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Iran’s Reformist Camp In Disarray Over Sham Elections

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With only ten days remaining before the March 1 elections in Iran, politicians are still weighing the advantages and disadvantages of participating in the vote amidst broad government electoral manipulations.

“Reformists cannot participate in meaningless, non-competitive, unfair, and ineffective elections in governing the country.” This is strategy number 4 of the Iranian Reformist Front’s statement on the 2024 elections. Contrary to this strategy and the majority vote of of Reformist organizations to boycott the elections, 110 Reformist activists have urged people to participate. This request has sparked intense debate among the Reformist activists and strategists.

Now it is evident that a faction of the Reformist camp cannot overlook the sacrifices of the “Women, Life, Freedom” Movement, which include 550 deaths, tens of thousands of arrests, more than 10 political executions, and the blinding and maiming of hundreds of individuals, and encourage people to return to the polls. Another faction still advocates for voting for the lesser evil, forming a minority in the Majles (parliament) to promote economic development.

However, they fail to explain how development and progress can be achieved while maintaining intact the nuclear and expansionist programs, which have brought on crippling US sanctions.

Pro-boycott arguments

What are the main arguments of both sides of this debate? Pro-boycott Reformists present arguments that diverge significantly from the reformists’ trajectory in the past two decades. From their perspective, the main issues with the statement of 110 activists include the futility of participation, the lack of significance of the 2024 elections, legitimization of disqualifications through participation, and the absence of any clear boundaries set by these 110 individuals. This same argument could have been raised during the 2000 presidential elections that led to Khatami’s second term, yet the Reformists participated in all elections from 2000 to 2020.

Pro-boycott activists believe that both the Majles and the Expert Assembly are irrelevant in governing the country. The Majles lacks real checks and balances and monitoring power, with tens of councils in the country possessing legislative authority. The Expert Council has never fulfilled its responsibility to hold Khamenei accountable, and the next leader will be chosen by the security and military establishment.

Critiquing the statement of pro-participation Reformists, Mohsen Armin the vice president of the Reform Front said: Society is so dissenting and angry that any participation in the elections will not yield any results beneficial to the public.” He considered the pro-participation group to be a minority among the Reformists and accused them of employing “fantasy-based theories” to highlight their fundamental differences with the majority, resulting only in division.

Blaming Ali Khamenei for Iran’s “defective political system,” imprisoned political activist Mostafa Tajzadeh, has declared in a letter that he will not vote in the upcoming elections. He cites several strategic mistakes by the leader of the Islamic Republic, including “rendering elections meaningless and rendering elected institutions ineffective, especially the parliament.”

Pro-participation arguments

The pro-participation camp argues for consensus-building, gradualism, problem-solving coalitions, and attention to the institutional and structural contexts of the goals. However, the Reformists did have strong presence in the parliament prior to 2020 and failed to achieve any of these goals. The numerous instances of Reformists’ participation through allegiance to the regime have not sufficed to prove their loyalty and good intentions. Their candidates were massively banned from the 2020 parliamentary and the 2021 presidential elections.

“Since 2020, according to all indicators, we have been moving in the wrong direction, proponents of boycotting the 2020 and 2021 elections…should evaluate the consequences of this policy,” says one of the signatories of this statement. According to this interpretation, economic and social decline is not attributable to the regime’s corruption, incompetence, waste, expansionism, authoritarianism, and totalitarianism but rather to the decreased participation of people over the past five years. It is the people’s fault for not voting sufficiently.

There is also a foreign element in the pro-participation arguments. Some argue that alleged enemies such as Donald Trump or Benjamin Netanyahu will take advantage of a low turnout in the elections as the legitimacy of the regime comes under question. This implies that, out of fear of Trump and Netanyahu, Iranians should embrace their brutal and corrupt leaders and pledge allegiance to Khamenei, despite the Reformists having a very slim chance of winning any parliamentary seats.