An election and an “election”

Two neighboring countries in the Middle East go to the polls this weekend.

Armenia votes on Sunday in its third parliamentary election in just over four years. This one has been called mid-term in an effort to resolve the political crisis that followed Armenia’s defeat last year in a war with Azerbaijan over the disputed territory of Artsakh or Nagorno-Karabakh.

Military defeat tends to be domestically unpopular, so prime minister Nikol Pashinyan – a reformist who came to power on the back of popular protests in 2018 – soon faced hostile demonstrations and calls for his resignation. He decided to seek a fresh mandate, and in April he resigned so as to enable an early election.

Voting is for 101 seats chosen by D’Hondt proportional representation, with a fairly high threshold of 5% (or 7% for multi-party alliances). But there are some refinements: at least three parties have to be represented, even if fewer than that reach the threshold, and no party can hold more than two-thirds of the seats. And if no governing coalition can be formed within a week of the result being declared, a runoff will be held between the top two parties, with the winner guaranteed 54% of the seats.

It’s at least a plus for Armenia’s democracy that the result of the election is very much uncertain. Pashinyan’s party, Civil Contract, is running neck-and-neck in the polls with its main opponent, the Armenia Alliance, led by former president Robert Kocharyan. But there is a range of smaller parties in the running as well, including the right-wing “I Have Honor” alliance, led by another former president, Serzh Sargsyan, which would be a possible partner for Kocharyan.

Although Pashinyan’s enemies can exploit discontent with his handling of the war, it’s far from clear what they would have done differently. Neither side wants to break with Russia, the country’s main ally, although Pashinyan is somewhat more pro-western, and neither proposes any serious attempt at reconciliation with Azerbaijan (something that the Azeris also show no interest in).

So if Pashinyan is replaced it will probably turn Armenia back to its authoritarian past without any corresponding geopolitical gain. And it’s quite possible that the voters will realise that, and decide to give their prime minister another chance.

Tonight, however, Iran votes in an election that shares little of Armenia’s uncertainty. Iran is not a democracy: the main levers of power are all in the hands of the supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Competitive elections are held for president and parliament, but they operate within narrowly circumscribed limits.

Nonetheless, Iranians have managed to elect reformist presidents in the past. Mohammad Khatami got the job in 1997 and served two four-year terms, during which he had a tense and unproductive relationship with Khamenei (he has since become an unperson). Then in 2013 – and after a failed revolution in the aftermath of the 2009 election – a moderate, Hassan Rouhani, won a surprise victory and was comfortably re-elected in 2017.

Rouhani was able to negotiate an agreement with the west over Iran’s nuclear program, but it was subsequently repudiated by Donald Trump and many western sanctions remain in place. American paranoia has also been triggered by the recent fighting in Israel/Palestine, in which Iran was blamed for supporting Hamas. So the argument that a moderate can win better treatment from the west is wearing a bit thin.

Rouhani has also been unable to achieve much in the way of domestic liberalisation, being frustrated by Khamenei and the conservative clerics. And mindful of the way they were ambushed last in 2013, the conservatives are leaving less to chance electorally: the guardian council, presided over by Khamenei, rejected all but seven of the nominations for president, eliminating anyone who might be thought to pose a threat to theocratic control.

Three of the seven have since withdrawn, leaving four candidates on the ballot tonight. If none of them wins a majority, the top two will contest a runoff a week later. But that seems improbable (it has only been required once, in 2005); most observers agree that the fix is in for Ebrahim Raisi, the conservative chief justice who was runner-up in 2017.

The only moderate candidate in the race is Abdolnaser Hemmati, formerly governor of the central bank. Given the electorate’s previous rejection of the hardliners, a strong showing by him cannot be ruled out. But indications are that voters are more likely to express their discontent by staying home.

Sina Toossi at Foreign Policy sums up the problem:

There is an evident pattern: Iran’s moderates tend to win elections when allowed to run, and hard-liners play a constant game of whack-a-mole to repress the moderates’ most promising political figures. This year’s election is the hard-liners’ most transparent attempt in Iran’s modern history to not just disqualify their rivals but remove their line of thinking entirely from Iran’s political landscape.

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