Iran’s presidential election

Is there any authoritarian regime that has such competitive executive elections as Iran’s? Has there ever been? Authoritarian regimes are not my specialty, but I suspect the answer to both questions just might be no (at least if by “ever” we exclude the liberal but pre-democratic regimes of the 19th century). While I do not claim to have insights into the Iranian leadership, the regular elections for that country’s president are striking in their featuring many less-than-dominant winners and, at least apparently, in frequently not having a pre-identified “official” candidate.

These patterns are evident in the most recent election, in which Hassan Rouhani was elected president with barely over 50% of the vote. Usually in authoritarian regimes that hold elections, the winner gains an officially proclaimed large majority–more like 70%-90%–and there can be no mistaking well before election day which candidate is the one sanctioned by the current leadership. Iran seems to be the exception.

Now we know from the 2009 experience that, when push comes to shove, the regime insiders have no compunction about ensuring their favored candidate is proclaimed the winner, and in suppressing opposition-led protests, filling up the jails and even the morgues if necessary to enforce their will. That is, after all, why it is an authoritarian regime, not a democracy. But it is an unusual breed of authoritarianism, 2009’s events notwithstanding.

An article by Farideh Farhi and Saideh Lotfian in Foreign Affairs states the point succinctly in its title: Why Rouhani won–and why Khamenei let him.” Farhi and Loftian make the following observation: “the new president might benefit from a broader base of support than any in Iran’s post-revolutionary history, which will be an important asset as he seeks to navigate the country out of isolation and economic crisis.” The point is that Rouhani is sufficiently an insider to the revolutionary elite as to be non-threatening, yet sufficiently “reformist” at least in his public appeal to win over the sort of voter who went for Mir Hossein Mousavi in 2009. Mousavi, of course, remains under house arrest since the demonstrations attempting to overturn the official verdict against him in the previous election. While candidates other than Rouhani might have been closer to the preferences of the more conservative sectors of the elite, it was perhaps better for these sectors to permit a broadly supported less-conservative candidate to win rather than risk a repeat of 2009. If this interpretation is correct, then elections matter. ((And so do post-election protests, at least once the immediate events being protested–in this case, the second term for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad–are over.))

I often argue we can learn a lot about a country by just looking at its election results. Of course, I am usually referring to democracies. Can we do the same even when the country in question is not a democracy? This graph points out some potentially significant trends in the internal competition within Iran’s narrow, mostly conservative, revolutionary elite.

Click the image to open a larger version.

Taking the official statistics at face value, ((With the possible–likely?–exception of 2009, I do not think this is too much of a stretch.)) the graph shows the winning and runner-up candidates’ vote percentages in every election since 1985. ((I could not find 1981, when Ali Khamenei began his first term as president, two years after the revolution. It is possible that he was unopposed. Khamenei is now the Supreme Leader.)) It shows the first round and the decisive round; these are the same in every election but the sixth one, in 2005, which is the only time a runoff was required. Elections in which an incumbent was running (and elected–at least officially–to a second term, are circled in red. Mohammad Khatami, in 2001 (the fifth election) is the only incumbent to be credited with a substantial uptick in votes (from 69.6% to 78.3%), while Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani has by far the biggest decline in a reelection bid (from 96.1% to 64%).

Among the noteworthy things are the general downward trend in the winner’s share during this time, focusing here on the decisive round. Of course, the one election that looks especially aberrant is the one that produced the presidency of the now-outgoing incumbent, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. That election saw a clear lack of coordination on the part of the elites, with five candidates obtaining from 13% to 21% of the votes, and the eventual winner having finished second in the first round (note how the “winning candidate, first round” line drops below that of the runner-up). Ahmadinejad, whose tenure would be marked by several conflicts with the Supreme Leader, was clearly an accidental president.

In some respects, the 2005 election might have been at least as big a challenge to the regime insiders as 2009 would prove to be: they had no clear favorite, and almost got stuck with Rafsanjani again. (I assume here that the 30 percentage-point decline in the latter’s vote from his first to second election is an indicator of his having fallen seriously out of favor with the clerical establishment, although he has remained in various key posts ever since.) They could even have found themselves stuck with Mehdi Karroubi, one of the other reformist leaders under house arrest since 2009. ((Why did the Supreme Leader and regime insiders stick with Ahmadinejad in the crisis of 2009 if he was an “accidental” president, the product of a crisis of leadership coordination four years earlier? I suspect it is for the reason I posited at the time: an authoritarian regime typically can’t see the defeat of an incumbent president and still remain authoritarian. I suspect it also is not feasible to deny an authoritarian president a chance to run for a second term when he is eligible under the rules of the regime, and when all previous presidents have served two consecutive terms. To deny him a second term might have produced its own crisis within the regime. Of course, we will never actually know.))

The other thing that jumps out in the graph is that while the second candidate’s share has tended to trend upward over most of this sequence, it trended significantly downward in 2013. This of course shows the lack of coordination on a conservative alternative to Rouhani. In their article, Farhi and Loftian suggest that if the conservatives had managed to coordinate on a single candidate, they might have at least forced the race into a runoff. That may be so; while Rouhani did win (just) over 50%, it is possible that with a single dominant candidate for the more-conservative forces in the race, Rouhani might not have made it to 50%. Besides, we can certainly take the precise vote share with some grains of salt. Had there been a conservative push to coordinate on one candidate, it could have turned into a polarizing race. Had there been a runoff, there surely would have been a polarizing race–perhaps worse than 2009. It would not surprise me if some of Khamenei’s inner circle simply decided to assure Rouhani won the votes–whether cast by actual voters or by electoral alchemists–to push him over the 50% threshold and thereby prevent a runoff, given Rouhani’s broadly acceptable profile.

Whether my specific interpretations are correct–I know next-to-nothing about Iranian clerical politics, after all!–the picture given by the graph is one of a declining ability of the revolutionary leadership to locate a single candidate who can unite the regime’s factions sufficiently to produce the large margins that are more typical of electoral authoritarian regimes. An authoritarian leader endorsed by barely half the electorate is unusual. When situated in the context of the other, quite different, electoral challenges indicated by the results of the 2005 and 2009 elections, Rouhani’s narrow clearance of the majority mark may signal a gradual unravelling of the revolutionary coalition. Of course, whether that results in eventual democratization or some sort of bigger crackdown, or rebellion, is impossible to say.

Data are from Wikipedia, which in turn cites the Iranian Interior Ministry as its source.

8 thoughts on “Iran’s presidential election

  1. > “Is there any authoritarian regime that has such competitive executive elections as Iran’s”

    An interesting ratio between two variables: the number of candidates vetoed (openly or covertly) and the number allowed to stand.

    In the later 1980s, some elections in (eg) Communist Hungary would feature, say, five or six candidates – all members of, or at least pre-cleared by, the Communist Party. Some Eurocommunists would argue that this was actually more democratic than a typical US election with only two candidates. – Even if they were from opposing parties. This would usually start a debate about whether Democrats and Republicans are really just different wings of the same [capitalist] “party”. (A criterion on which the five or six Hungarian candidates would not score too highly either, it must be said).


  2. Also depends on the “why” would-be candidates are barred from standing. “Must be aged over 50, a resident citizen for the whole past 25 years, and nominated by at least 500,000 voters” might produce fewer names on the ballot than “Anyone pre-cleared by the Presidential Fitness Council”, but would be more neutral and probably reflect the voters’ preferences more closely, albeit not exactly (eg, if Obama is under 50, the voters can elect Hillary Clinton in his place).

    The European Court of Human Rights has upheld age limitations on the grounds these don’t permanently block voters from electing candidates who represent “the will of the electors”.


  3. The ideal presidential fitness council is a body comprised of all the electors. Any smaller body seems to me deeply undesirable. I accept there is a good case for an automatic integrity check and a fitness check.

    Indonesia introduced a medical commission after the tragic presidency of Abdurrahman Wahid, the first Reformasi president, who had suffered multiple strokes and was also seriously visually impaired. Wahid was eventually impeached and removed.

    The medical commission does involve running. Certain former vice-presidential candidates in the US could be in difficulties.


  4. This is exactly right, IMHO.

    The Iran experts are quick to tell us about their insider knowledge of the Iranian system and “Khamenei’s vote is the only one that matters,” etc., etc. But they don’t answer the question: if it’s all rigged, why are Iranian elites quite publicly surprised by every election? And if it’s all rigged, why is there rotation in office amongst the factions? This phenomenon doesn’t exist in any other authoritarian system that I’m aware of, since so many authoritarian regimes either have only a single ruling faction, or take it as dogma that factional conflicts are not played out in a public-facing institution (like a parliament or an election).

    The only Iran scholar I’ve ever seen have what approaches a good answer to the question is Mehdi Moslem, who wrote the book on Iranian factional politics.

    He wrote, and I paraphrase, that all the institutions of the Islamic Republic, elections included, were just gameboards for the factions to play out their conflicts.

    So elections can’t be fully falsified, in a Eastern Bloc way or even in a Chinese way, because these factions need to try to beat each other and take control of what patronage they can.


  5. Two points of dissent, if I may:

    1. Even though Iran might be the only authoritarian regime with competitive formal elections, I think a comparison can be drawn with the way the Chinese leadership is elected. The convention that developed over the last few leadership cycles that dictates that the leadership be changed every ten years makes for a quasi-electoral process taking place inside the Communist Party, with different factions trying to achieve influence and ensure that their supporters are chosen. The fact that the timing is now set in convention makes the difference between this and normal power struggles in authoritarian regimes.
    2. The tendency of autocrats to cement their legitimacy through elections or referenda with absurd majorities is somewhat less relevant in this case, because the President is not the supreme authority in the country. The Supreme Leader draws his legitimacy from Allah, and therefore can allow for somewhat competitive elections (even though one can ask how much relevance does this competitiveness has when over 90% of candidates are disqualified in advance.) On the contrary, especially following publicized tensions between Khamenei and Ahmadinejad, the former might have an incentive to diminish the legitimacy of the office of the President by allowing relatively free elections and thus preventing him from obtaining a large majority.


    • To be clear, many authoritarian regimes have competitive elections for the head of state or government, by which I mean more than just the regime-favored candidate running in a process in which ordinary citizens vote. China is not one of them. It is, of course, a very valid point that the president of Iran is not the highest authority, given that there is someone else whose title is “Supreme Leader” for a reason. (Even this supremacy is not without caveats, however; Iran’s lines of accountability are complex!) Still, the president is the top governmental executive, even if only formally, and the relatively low vote shares are a striking anomaly comparatively.

      The institutionalization of top leadership turnover in China deserves its own treatment, as it is also relatively unusual among authoritarian systems. It is something I have included in my courses for years, but I was surprised to see that I have (apparently) never put up even one blog post about Chinese Communist Party institutions!


  6. I respectfully disagree with Sagi as far as his characterization of Chinese leadership handovers. In Chinese, the leadership decision is totally opaque and private, making it again to the change-over on a private company’s board of directors. There’s not even the facade of an electoral process.

    The difference matters because of surprises. Iranian elites regularly appear to be surprised by election results; insider CPC figures never appear to be surprised. Of if they are surprised, the scale is quite different: Iranians are surprised a centrist figure got 51% of the nationwide vote; CPC figures are surprised a new Politburo member was ranked 8th instead of 9th.

    Second, and this is just for clarification, the Supreme Leader doesn’t draw his authority from Allah. According to Iran’s Constitution and its elite discourse, the Supreme Leader draws his authority from his status as a particularly well-qualified jurist, and from his indirect election. The system claims legitimacy because it’s based on Islamic values; there’s nothing like direct appointment or “divine right of kings” in the discourse. (Compare to, say, the Vatican, where there’s a discourse about the Holy Spirit inspiring the Cardinals as they vote in the conclave.)

    While we can posit a lot of caveats to the Iranian president’s authority — he can’t even veto legislation — I think commentators overplay the alleged powerlessness of the office. The president still runs the administration, and appoints the ministries and the diplomatic corps. This means there’s an agenda-setting aspect to the job. Just saying the names Rafsanjani, Khatami, and Ahmadinejad underscores the ability of each individual president to mark their mark on internal and external affairs. If Ahmadinejad was so powerless and inconsequential, why did anyone care about his notorious statements? Agenda-setting is the answer.


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