Hazem Saghieh

How to Turn Elections into Non-Elections  

The Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711-1776) may have been the first to defend the notion of legitimate opposition, albeit somewhat reservedly. He argued that the opposition should have a limited negative role in overseeing the government's work, but he warned against taking discord and splits so far that they raise the specter of civil war among factions.

After Hume and during the same era, Edmund Burke (1729-1797) precipitated another shift. The English-Irish writer and politician, a figure often referred to as the founder of political conservatism, argued in defense of political parties, without whom, he believed, it would be impossible for the legislature to function.

He thus sought to develop a theory that reflects the parliamentary practice he dedicated himself to for almost thirty years during his time as an MP. His insistence on the need for opposition was redoubled by the fact that England was not in the middle of a civil war in the 18th century, and that there had been no fears of another civil war following that of the 17th century, not to mention the fact that neither of the two parties, the "Tories," (the antecedent of the Conservatives) and the "Whigs,(the antecedents Liberals) had been pushing for one.

But why did such attitudes not emerge until the 18th century? The reason is that, before the Enlightenment, political authority was linked to the divine, with rulers thought to have a "divine right" that presented their rule as an extension of God’s will. Thus, opposition to rulers was stigmatized as opposition to God himself, a blasphemous act of treachery, and oppositionists were marked out as something akin to descendants of the devil.

Thus, opposition only came to be seen as legitimate with the secularization of politics and the separation of the political sphere from that of religion and sanctity. The image of the opponent as a sinful apostate faded, and it came to be replaced by that of someone with a different opinion or divergent interests.

However, in the modern era, opposition and its legitimacy were no longer questionable on religious grounds alone. Added to the mix were ideologies that had replaced religion with atheism or agnosticism but secularized religion by making claims to absolute truths along the same lines. On this basis, they vilified those who reject their truths and branded them traitors.

In this sense, communist and nationalist regimes would hold elections in which there was no opposition - elections contested by parties and individuals who all back and sanctify the regime in place but have slight disagreements about how to provide this support.

These regimes have also made a habit of invalidating elections and nullifying the opposition by granting the rulers and their candidates astronomical percentages of the vote. The significance of obtaining more than 99 percent of the vote goes beyond a mythical inflation of adoration for the ruler, it also presents opponents, who make up less than 1 percent, as an isolated group consisting only of traitors, heretics, and madmen.

In Iran, there's no need for this detour of secularizing religion or granting a non-religious idea its status. There, we find a return to the start, whereby the regime is presented as directly linked to God, without mediation or interpretation. That is why the regime, which recently held general elections and holds elections often, deserves its status as the ideal prototype of turning elections into non-elections.

The pure religious absolutism is not manifested as clearly as it is in the notion of "Velayat-e-Faqih" (Guardianship of the Islamic Jurist) anywhere else in the world, rendering this regime the absolute antithesis to the very concept of opposition, which only gained legitimacy following the secularization of politics. It is not only antithetical to opposition in principle; all of its practices and procedures are antithetical to it as well, explicitly demonstrating the stark contradiction between the elections, which are persistently and diligently conducted, and non-elections.

Here, we do not find the 99 percent framework. Instead, more self-assured frameworks built around this supposed supernatural source of legitimacy are employed, without making them any less ignominious or ridiculous. As we all know, there is Iran’s notorious pre-rigging, through which "unqualified" candidates are barred from running. In the latest elections, more than 15,000 candidates for the 290-strong parliament survived screening by the Guardian Council.

If the electorate was primarily concerned with economic issues and the vulnerability of the regime's legitimacy following the killing of Mahsa Amini and the uprising that followed, the regime, according to its spokespersons, wanted the elections to "send a message to the world, " not Iranian citizens. While elections are supposed to bring about some change, which is expected of all elections, in Iran, elections do not change anything significant, leaving "the will of the people" suppressed by a higher will whose substance cannot be perceived.

"Avoiding a total boycott" also becomes a demand, so that the regime's domestic isolation is not exposed to the world, which would allow for exploiting its weaknesses. Elections, which are meant to prevent wars, are a war in themselves in Iran, as Khamenei's eloquent statement to his people demonstrates. "If the enemy feels that you are not capable... and that the Iranian nation has no power, they will threaten your security in every way." Taking to the polls thus becomes a "religious duty," which goes against the very essence of the idea of voting.

This model is forcefully being presented as the alternative to "Western-style democracy" in our region. The armed militias scattered across the Levant are fully prepared to impose it, simultaneously "correcting" both our course and that of democracy.