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.
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.