Judiciary Chief Ebrahim Raisi’s victory in the Iranian presidential election on June 18 won’t have come as a surprise to many Iranians. While voters were undoubtedly feeling disenchanted by the country’s economic situation and President Hassan Rouhani’s failed two-term policy agenda, the Guardian Council, a vetting body, had also left little to chance. By disqualifying all the main reformist and moderate candidates who could have threatened Raisi’s ascendance, the Guardian Council oversaw one of the least competitive elections of the post-revolutionary era. Raisi was deemed the victor in a landslide result amid historically low voter turnout.
So why were pre-election polls conducted throughout the campaign period if there was never any doubt of the election result? One might ask why the regime—which is notoriously sensitive about election matters—would allow polling to occur given that polls could undermine its carefully calibrated election result? It could have easily cracked down on pre-election polling, but there was little evidence that it did this on a large scale. Indeed, polling was conducted throughout the election period by various organizations, including groups linked to the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, the Tehran University’s Iranian Students Polling Agency, and other independent outlets.
The answer to these questions lies in the election process itself. Elections in authoritarian regimes are not a new phenomenon and, in fact, most autocratic regimes, including Iran, have built-in pseudo-democratic processes. This is known to scholars as a “democratic veneer” in which the regime makes tokenistic democratic concessions that look meaningful but ultimately do not undermine regime control. It’s a tool used by hybrid regimes to underwrite survival because it acts as a “safety valve” that allows citizens to express dissatisfaction at the ballot box and to exercise some agency over—an often extremely limited aspect of—political life. The veneer also helps to neutralize opposition by offering an enticing trade-off between political inclusion and compliance.
But the veneer is more than elections, tokenistic parliaments, and pseudo-oppositions: it is as much about pageantry as it is the actual vote. This performative democracy was on full display in Iran over the past month. The formal election debates between presidential candidates were televised with much theatre, while Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei made a last minute plea imploring Iranians to vote: “In less than forty-eight hours a crucial event will take place in the country… By your presence and vote, you actually determine the fate of the country in all major issues.”
On polling day itself, the Supreme Leader voted in a much publicized visit to a polling station at 7am in what appeared to be an effort to stimulate turnout in an election that large numbers of disenchanted voters were expected to boycott. Indeed, new research has confirmed what autocrats have long known: perceptions of election integrity correlate with greater beliefs in regime legitimacy and a lower likelihood of protest participation. Today it is not enough for authoritarian regimes to hold pseudo-democratic elections at regular intervals—they must also maintain a facade of election integrity and competitiveness. The Iranian regime learned after the millions-strong post-election protests in 2009 that it cannot take this for granted.
Pre-election polling can also play a useful role in authoritarian elections. In 2020, academic Shahram Akbarzadeh and I examined polls conducted during the 2017 Iranian presidential election. We weren’t looking for accuracy, given that there was no guarantee that the election was free and fair, but we wanted to know whether the polls should be taken seriously at all. Although high-quality polling undertaken by independent pollsters could hold autocrats to account, not many of the polls met such a target. The vast majority were low quality, used bad sampling, and were opaque about how they reached their results. Therefore, the final numbers had little utility, but this didn’t mean that the polls themselves weren’t important.
In democracies, scholars such as Klaus Krippendorff and Lisbeth Lipari have argued that polls can help to re-produce the very democratic processes that they are surveying. By questioning voters about their voting intentions and publicizing the result, polls in authoritarian regimes, too, can create a sense of genuine electoral competition.
In Iran in 2017, for example, one non-regime polling company polled voters daily, presenting results on high resolution graphs that plotted so-called changing voter sentiment in the lead-up to election day. Although the data was methodologically questionable, the professional-looking graphs implied that real world events during the campaign period, such as poor debate performance, were influencing voters, and that that the final prize remained up for grabs. The pollsters never asked Iranian voters if they trusted the electoral process, and the fact that non-government pollsters were asking the questions implied that the polling organizations saw merit in the process. Otherwise, voters might wonder why pollsters would ask such questions. In this way, polling processes may inadvertently produce and reproduce a pseudo-democratic reality.
In another 2017 example, the state-run Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) shared poll results that predicted 63.9 percent voter turnout and asserted that 46 percent of voters had yet to pick their candidate. IRNA optimistically opined that, “given the increasing popularity of presidential candidates and the holding of televised debates, the turnout is expected to increase in the coming days.” Although their predicted turnout was almost ten points more than actual participation and, therefore, had little meaning, it is significant, as Iran’s democratic veneer is carefully stage-managed and all concessions are strategic. Indeed, if polling in democracies has been found to construct rather than simply reflect a democratic process, then polling by regime-linked agencies could represent an formal regime effort to contribute to the pageantry of authoritarian elections. Such pageantry was even more important in the June 18 election, given how uncompetitive the Guardian Council had made the race.
Aside from making the election process more visible, polls in other contexts have also been shown to influence turnout by decreasing the isolation between surveyed individuals and electoral processes. They also convey election closeness in a way that prompts non-voters to cast a ballot. If this effect holds in authoritarian regimes, then the very presence of polls would complement regime turnout agendas. Autocrats have been sensitive to turnout since citizens in the Soviet Union famously started using non-voting as protest. Khamenei’s 2021 plea to voters and the crack-of-dawn ballot-casting noted above suggests that he is only too aware that turnout is a politically sensitive bellwether of regime legitimacy. Pre-election polling could very well support this push in Iran.
So, is polling part of an active strategy to augment election integrity in Iran? We don’t know that, although the regime’s tolerance of polling suggests that it is viewed as nonthreatening at a bare minimum. But, even if unintentional, there is little doubt that polling complements the regime’s need to convey a pluralist process by increasing the sense of competitiveness and perhaps even influencing turnout. In the context of the 2021 election being the least competitive in the Islamic Republic’s history, this sort of pseudo-democratic pageantry was essential to clothing the electoral process in a semblance of pluralism. In this regard, pre-election polling may not be just a side-effect of authoritarian elections, but one that contributes to the reproduction of a regime’s much-needed democratic veneer.
Dr. Dara Conduit is a research fellow in the Middle East Studies Forum at the Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalization at Deakin University, Australia.
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