The writer is an instructor at Turkey’s Sabanci University and an expert on Iranian foreign policy and security.


The 13th presidential election held in Iran on June 18 witnessed a lowest ever voter turnout in the electoral history of country. Further while 48.8% voters turned at polling booths, nearly four million of them cast blank votes.

Besides low turnout, election of Ebrahim Raeisi, the traditional conservative and the previous head of the judiciary, as Iran’s new president securing 62% of the polled votes, is the other issue that dominates the local and the international agenda.

Three main interrelated arguments are part of debate to explain low electoral participation. They are unfairness of the electoral system, the indifference of the electorate, and the economic problems due to sanctions imposed by the US because of the failure of nuclear deal.

However, it seems that an important issue that distinguishes this election from the rest to a large extent has escaped the notice of many observers. The boycott call was made by many reformist figures that included high ranking politicians, intellectuals and had support of the Iranian diaspora.

A boycott is not a passive indifference in voters limited to a single election, but a proactive plan and part of other oppositional strategies. Therefore, we must examine both the voting behavior and the boycott strategy, in depth, when evaluating Raeisi’s new presidency.

The history of Iran in the 20th century is a history of swaying between dangerous extremes. Democratization, which has been one of the main issues in world politics in the last century, is perceived to be an extremely long-winded political journey by political scientists, moving along a roller-coaster ride over various democracy indices. Iran is one of the societies that put their desire for democratization and seriousness into action more than others in the Middle East.

In fact, the process that started with the 1905 Constitutional Revolution continued on an extremely lively but also turbulent course under the Pahlavi monarchy with regular street protests. Iran turned into a mixed political system having both authoritarian and republican features with the 1979 revolution movement under the brand of an “Islamic Republic” with a sudden Shia-theocratic turn.

Election boycott is a voter strategy

In this context, Iran has characteristics that are similar to many other states that are struggling for democratization. Like many other states that are becoming more democratic, Iran has made some progress with the occasional political opportunity and victories with constitutional revolutions and reform projects. However, the Islamic Republic also regressed from time to time, in addition to being pushed to the extremes and laid low by military coups and authoritarian revolutions. The instability and systemic variability in question also inevitably affected the voting behavior within this mixed system.

Election boycott is a voter strategy occasionally used in electoral authoritarian systems. Studies show that electoral boycott is a proactive voter interest rather than a passive indifference of voters. Because, the purpose of a boycott in authoritarian systems is to demonstrate the necessity of a systemic or political transformation and to give the political authority a mass warning.

One feature of Iranian elections is that they did not have a high turnout rate as in many other mixed systems. In fact, when we examine the general turnout in the presidential elections from 1980-2021, we see that the participation rate of Iranian voters in the elections is at a medium level, around 65.5%. 

The 1993 elections witnessed 50.6% turnout, the lowest when Rafsanjani was elected president for the second time. Looking at this picture, it is revealed that an average of 35-40% of Iranian voters exhibited a voter behavior that focused on not participating in the elections in the first 30 years of the revolution. Another feature of Iranian elections is the intense electoral volatility and uncertainty, as in many mixed systems and unconsolidated new democracies. In fact, the participation rate in the 1997 elections, which took place right after the 1993 elections that had the lowest turnout rates, suddenly increased by 30 points and reached 79.9%. This volatility is also in line with the sudden changes in the votes polled for the candidates. Rafsanjani, who became president with 96% of the votes in the 1989 election, in which 54.5% of the people participated was only able to get 64% of the votes in the 1993 election, in which 50.6% of the people participated, with a decrease of almost 30 points.

The presidential candidates of the time, who could be described as the “children of the revolution”, were profiles that were highly integrated into the system-building process as they took an active role in the revolutionary processes, had clergy backgrounds and took part in various institutions of the system. Since the 1990s, when the construction of the Islamic Republic continued rapidly, we saw that alternative currents of ideas on the vision of how this construction would continue, even if not in the form of a political party organization, gradually began to find base among some political factions like “traditional conservatives” and “reformers”. However, it’s not possible to say that the factions in question could have a sufficiently consolidated electoral base in a short time or not.

Debate on electoral participation

There are three main interrelated arguments regarding the debate on electoral participation; the unfairness of the electoral system, the indifference of the electorate, and the heavy sanctions coupled with economic problems brought by the failure of the nuclear deal.

Starting in 2009, however, the electoral dynamics observably transformed. This transformation started with a serious increase in the voter turnout in the 2009 elections, after which Mahmoud Ahmadinejad took office. In fact, the voter turnout in the 2009 elections was recorded at 84.8%, followed by the 72% and 73% rates in the 2013 and 2017 elections, respectively, that made the pragmatist politician Hassan Rouhani the president. Therefore, Iranian elections had above-average or high turnout between 2009 and 2017. The main reason for this positive momentum was an “innovation potential” that started to gain ground in Iranian politics after the first thirty years of the revolution.

The conservative candidate Ahmadinejad having a conservative profile that was different from the traditional mullah-origin conservative presidents was undoubtedly an important factor in nourishing this innovation potential in the eyes of the voters. Reformist politics, which also gaining strength was an equally important factor. Hopes that the nuclear deal process would accelerate domestic political and economic reforms during the 2009 Green Movement and the rule of the pragmatist Rouhani government were also the most significant factors that drew the voters to the polling booths.

The main feature of the last decade has been the diversification of political visions for the future of Iran. In fact, in addition to the traditional clergy-based conservatives; populist conservatives, military-based conservatives, and within the reform movement divisions and diversifications started emerging. This period is essentially an important crossroads where Iranian voters started to get to know and explore the system they are in and what they want from it. Although rates of voter transition between factions is still high, it seems that the voter base is starting to settle more among the factions. In this period, the voters actually go to the polls with the assumption that there is cut-throat competition between the presidential candidates who take the stage to represent different political visions and that the candidates would win the elections by a narrow margin. Although it is found after the elections that the difference in votes between the two rivals that received the highest votes was high, it is the perception and the assumptions of the voters towards the competition that is significant.

The numbers reveal three key implications for Iranian voting behavior. First, Iranian voters have shown high turnout in the last 10 years despite the electoral lethargy seen in the first three decades of the revolution. Therefore, it is not possible to talk about a categorical voter apathy in the history of the Islamic Republic, and the voting behavior in the last decade shows the opposite. Voters do not show categorical indifference towards the elections, they make a strategic choice about which elections they will be engaged in.

Different voting behaviors

Secondly, Iranian voters can exhibit different voting behaviors within the same electoral system. It is clear that, especially, the veto processes of the Guardian Council raise serious debates on the injustice of the electoral system. On the other hand, the same voter can exhibit radically different voting behavior under the same unfair electoral system over the course of 13 elections despite the unjust practices embedded in the system since the beginning of the revolution.

Thirdly, it becomes difficult to understand why voters did not participate in an election as the voter base of different political factions has not been consolidated yet. The voter transition between factions and intra-factional candidates is still high, and voting behavior exhibits high electoral volatility. It is an undeniable fact that there has been a considerable base among Iranian voters who do not participate in the elections since the beginning of the revolution because they do not find the electoral system legitimate.

On the other hand, the reason why some voters whose participation in the elections is volatile and do not participate in the elections can be a pragmatic and strategic preference rather than a theoretical legitimacy claim for the elections, unlike the ossified base that never participates in the elections. In this context, one of the most important factors is the elimination of a certain popular candidate by the Guardian Council.

When these three points are considered, it turns out that Iranian voters make “strategic choices” under the same unfair electoral system, considering other factors independent of the characteristics of the electoral system, and use participation in the elections as a strategic action, just as in the electoral systems of other countries. Therefore, the positive momentum in participation to Iranian presidential elections observed in the last decade being faced with a radical decrease in turnout in the June 18 elections must be considered as a strategic voting behavior. The call for a boycott, which has come to the fore in these elections, is the basis for such voter strategy.

For reformist Iranian voters, boycotting the June 18 presidential elections was not silent indifference; it was proactive and risky voting behavior instead. At a time when the nuclear negotiations with Biden were more likely to be successful, and therefore economic relief could be achieved by the removal of the sanctions, the biggest of the risks was undoubtedly to punish the pragmatist government responsible for this deal.

Studies show that electoral boycott is a proactive voter interest rather than a passive indifference of voters. Because, the purpose of a boycott in authoritarian systems is to demonstrate the necessity of a systemic or political transformation and to give the political authority a mass warning.

Electoral boycott is more than mass silence

Although election boycott is sometimes perceived to be a lack of mass electoral participation limited to a certain election period, in practice it is much more than a mass silence and inaction limited to a single election period. In fact, a large mass of voters not participating in the elections is the first leg of the boycott. It is seen that most election boycotts are supported by other democratic reaction strategies, such as street movements during the post-election period, and that the boycotters continue to put pressure on the authorities by combining several strategies.

Therefore, an election boycott must be taken as a long political process that includes the political developments that follow a warning to the system that a wider social movement may come in the future, and pose a threat. Election boycott is a risky election strategy since the boycotting voters will not participate in the elections and will most likely hand over the political power to the other side.

The new leader who takes office following a boycotted election would have two paths to take. They would either seek serious reform regarding the issues that the boycott has brought up, and prefer to prevent a larger opposition movement that the boycotters may be involved in the future, or ignore the boycott, choosing to maintain the image of “a strong political authority” against the boycotters. 

For this reason, the post-boycott period is a state of maximum risk, uncertainty, and obscurity for the political leader who came to power with a boycotted election.

For reformist Iranian voters, boycotting the June 18 presidential elections was not silent indifference; it was proactive and risky voting behavior instead. At a time when the nuclear negotiations with Biden were more likely to be successful, and therefore economic relief could be achieved by the removal of the sanctions, the biggest of the risks was undoubtedly to punish the pragmatist government responsible for this deal.

As, in practice, such a punishment for the pragmatist government would mean that in case the nuclear negotiations succeeded, the economic fruits of the negotiations would be reaped by a conservative government. And, this involved serious risks regarding the economic model that these fruits would be utilized around by the conservative government and its political and social consequences. On the other hand, there’s uncertainty surrounding the next stages of the current boycott for the neoconservative government to be led by Raeisi.

One of the most important uncertainties for Raeisi is that 51.2% of the people did not participate in the elections and there is still no clarity as to whether the 4 million protest votes were perceived to be a successful boycott or not by the boycotting voters. There are two fundamental questions that the system seeks to answer following the elections: Was the boycott rate of 55% including blank votes sufficient for the boycotting voters, or did the voters expect an election boycott of 75% as some opinion polls had reported? 

Questions with no clear answers

Do the boycotting voters find the current boycott rates sufficient for the courage to start a mass political opposition or social movement in the coming months, or are there dominant differences of opinion and will on this issue among the boycotting voters?

These and similar questions do not have a clear answer for the neoconservative government and the boycotting voters yet. It is highly likely that the answers will begin to reveal themselves a few months into Raeisi’s official inauguration. Although both the appointed and the elected figures in power today seem to be monopolized by the traditional conservatives that we are accustomed to seeing in the first two decades of the revolution, Raeisi’s presidency does not look like it’s going to be an easy one.

Because, for a president who came to power with a boycotted election, the answers to these questions seem to shape the strategies to be followed in domestic and foreign policies in the long run. For Raeisi, personally, the significance of this period is that his performance during his presidency will determine his potential to become a supreme leader in the future and what kind of a supreme leader profile he would draw as a great judge who has spent his entire career in the judiciary.

Nevertheless, the current situation following the boycott leaves us with the following basic scenario regarding the possible entourage of the Raeisi era’s policies: Raeisi’s main policy in responding to the boycott would be to signal that the political system he leads is a strong one and that he will be a supreme leader that represents justice.

In this context, Raeisi’s primary goal would be to ensure the regime’s security. And, this practically means that the focus would be on redesigning the Iranian economy. Therefore, we could foresee that this extremely traditional conservative leader may display a more conciliatory stance on the nuclear deal than expected, unlike previous conservative presidents.

It seems like the Raeisi government will maintain a level of diplomacy sufficient for the lifting of sanctions and the effective implementation of the nuclear deal with the US and the Western world. In addition, any kind of economic reform and relief also seems essential to prevent the boycotters from mobilizing a wider social movement. In this case, Raeisi will focus on economic strength while demonstrating the power of the system against the boycotters, as well as use the cards of economic development and the fair use of economic resources.

However, it seems unlikely that Iran would cooperate with the Western world on issues that challenge the fundamental political principles of the conservative wing, such as ballistic missiles, Shia militias, and the Financial Action Task Force (FATF). On the contrary, Iran would prefer to take advantage of all kinds of economic opportunities that may arise from the lifting of the sanctions and enter into intense economic relations with China and other Asian and Middle Eastern countries, rather than with the West.

Turning point

This is a turning point that exposes the biggest risk taken by the boycotting voters, as Iran, led by a conservative government, could become more integrated into the “alliance of authoritarians” often identified with China’s Belt and Road Initiative these days. However, the same junction will be the foundational point where the potential supreme leader profile to be drawn by Raeisi will begin to take shape. Because, following some reforms in the economy, Raeisi will face the necessity of creating a political plan that would respond to the demands of the Iranian society for social and political justice to a certain extent.

It seems that the true political success of today’s boycott will be measured, in the coming years, by its ability to push Raeisi to seek balance between regime security and socio-political justice.

Translated from Turkish by Can Atalay

* Opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Anadolu Agency.

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