Iran’s presidential election: Urgent need to build an independent workers’ party

Ebrahim Raisi (Photo: Mohammed Ali Marizad/Wikimedia Commons)

Ebrahim Raisi’s election as president, openly described in Iran as ‘engineered’, revealed the regime’s weak popular support. The mechanics of his ‘victory’ were those of rulers fearful of the population.

Facing a rising tide of opposition, especially the growth of independent workers’ organisations that are leading struggles and repeated mass protests, the conservative ‘Principalists’ mainly running the Iranian regime hoped that Raisi, with his bloody record of presiding over thousands of executions, would be a ‘strong’ leader.

They were also fearful of showing more divisions within the ruling caste or creating opportunities for their ‘reformist’ opponents in this election. The conservatives wanted to show that the regime was solid, and had sidelined both critics within the elite and general opponents.

This was tied to a more fundamental fear that a more ‘open’ election could have created space for protest and demands for genuinely free elections. In particular, the spectre of a movement like the 2009 Green Movement developing again struck fear into the regime because Iran is different now.

Ordinary Iranians’ disappointment with the results of the two ‘reformist’ presidencies of Khatami and now the outgoing Rouhani, have posed more sharply that struggle is needed to win change.

The November 2019 protests showed how mass demonstrations could rapidly spread across Iran, and the growing workers’ movement meant that new protests concerning elections could have a different character to previous ones.

Any development of significant workers’ protests would pose the question of a general strike, something which has a history in Iran. Strikes, including general strikes, alongside mass demonstrations, played a key role in the 1978-79 revolution against the Shah’s regime.

Thus, the conservatives moved to ensure that Raisi, heavily defeated when he scored 38.5% in the 2017 presidential election, this time faced no serious opposition.

The ‘Guardian Council’, effectively appointed by Iran’s inviolable ‘Supreme Leader’, used its power to block the overwhelming majority of would-be candidates from standing.

Not only were practically all candidates from the ‘reformist’ wing of the elite barred from standing, so were ‘conservative’ candidates backed by the powerful IRGC (Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps) – as was Ahmadinejad, a previous president, now regarded as a loose cannon by his former conservative allies.

This rigging was so blatant that the ‘Supreme Leader’, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, felt the need to make a show of asking the Guardian Council to reverse its decision and allow other candidates to run but, as was to be expected, this was rejected.

But even a quick look at the official voting figures shows that the regime has a narrow basis of support.

Narrow base of support 

Raisi was elected on a minority vote, winning just under 18 million votes from the 59.3 million-strong electorate. The turnout of just under 29 million was the lowest ever percentage, 48.8%, in presidential elections in the Islamic Republic’s history.

In 2017, 41 million voted, a 70% turnout, and the mildly ‘reformist’ Rouhani won with 23 million votes, 57%. This time, in the capital Tehran, just 26% voted, compared with 72.9% in 2013 and 73.3% in 2017.

Significantly, in this election, the number of blank or void ballots, 4.16 million – 14% of the total – was higher than any of the votes for the three losing candidates. Some 34,543,106 of the 59,310,307 electorate either didn’t vote or spoiled their ballot, a sign of Raisi’s narrow popular base.

Raisi downplayed his gory role in the executions of thousands of opponents in 1988, and in numerous other instances of repression and executions. He tried to adopt a populist approach often repeating: “I’ve not only known poverty, I’ve tasted poverty” – while promising to act against corruption and build “a government of the people for a strong Iran.”

Despite continuing repression of activists, sections of workers took advantage of the election campaign to press their demands. At the end of May, oil workers held protests with some calling for strike action. Actions to secure unpaid wages have continued.

In a situation of economic and social crisis, worsened by the Covid pandemic which has killed over 83,000 Iranians, Raisi and the regime will be put to the test. The fact that now the ‘Principalists’ formally control all the levers of power means they will be held responsible for what happens.

While he may try to emphasise, or even repeat, elements of his ruthless past, Raisi has a weak popular base and, as the Shah of Iran found out in the 1978-79 revolution, a repressive state apparatus can only go so far against a determined mass movement. The whip of counter-revolution can provoke revolution.

It is possible that Raisi will want outgoing president Rouhani to complete negotiations about the US re-joining the 2015 nuclear deal and thereby get a lifting of the sanctions imposed by Trump.

The New York Times has reported that the wording of a deal was agreed weeks before the election. Clearly, Raisi and the Principalists hope that lifting the sanctions, which the Financial Times describes as “possibly the harshest sanctions ever levied on a sovereign state”, will ease the pressure on them and enable them to give a few concessions to the long-suffering Iranian population.

While that would give the regime a bit more room to manoeuvre, especially alongside a continued increase in the oil export price, it would not solve the fundamental issues facing the mass of Iranians or prevent struggles developing.

Workers’ movement

The development of the workers’ movement is partly against the background of a combination of a general crisis of capitalist development, sanctions, and Covid that has produced a dire economic situation.

Inflation has rocketed since 2017 and is currently around 46%. Alongside this, large-scale unemployment has continued; youth unemployment has averaged 22% over the eight years of Rouhani’s tenure. But while these are key factors in the background to the struggles that have developed they are not the only ones. Apart from the serious economic issues, there have been movements against oppression, for democratic rights and, increasingly, against what many see as a corrupt elite.

A joint May Day statement issued this year by workers, pensioners and other organisations argued, among other points, that “today, the absence of workers’ organisations in all workplaces, regions and on a national level, is felt more than ever, and demands immediate and inclusive efforts to establish such independent organisations”.

In such structures, all organisations representing the interests of the Iranian working class could unite in order to organise, debate and coordinate the struggles together.

Many are looking for an alternative. The election’s low turnout, as was also the case in the even-lower participation in last year’s parliamentary election, also showed the widespread disappointment with ‘reformists’.

There is a search for an alternative. The western imperialist powers will try to intervene and influence the opposition. They will hypocritically denounce Raisi, while keeping close ties with the brutal Saudi dictatorship.

The London Times denounced Raisi as “the Butcher of Tehran”, but never used such terms to describe the right-wing Chilean dictator Pinochet who probably was responsible for more deaths after he seized power in a bloody coup. The workers’ movement needs to be aware of ‘false friends’ and develop its own independent programme.

Already in some of the protests that have taken place, there have been demands for workers’ control of workplaces, while more general slogans against the regime have also been aired.

This makes it more urgent to start a discussion on the foundation of an independent workers’ party and on what its programme should be. Such a party is necessary to unite the struggles of the workers and youth and keep them independent from capitalist forces. But to do this successfully it would need to argue for a socialist programme that can mobilise the working class and poor to break with the capitalist system.

Iran is facing a new period. Raisi does not have majority support. This gives the workers movement the possibility of getting a wider echo, not just within the majority not supporting the rulers, but also even among some of those who voted for Raisi.

However, to achieve this, a socialist programme is needed alongside the building of the nucleus of organisations to be ready to act when the opportunity to struggle presents itself.

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June 2021