A glimpse at the violations during the 2021 election in Iran
Iran went to the polls on June 18, 2021 under a tempestuous political climate characterized by voter apathy and widespread calls for a boycott. These sentiments were caused by issues such as a poor economy, widespread dissatisfaction with the government, heavy suppression of citizens’ freedoms, and candidate disqualifications that constrained voters’ choices even more than in the past. According to official estimates, in this election, 59,310,307 people were eligible to vote, of which 28,989,529 people (48.87%) cast their ballots.
In this round four elections were held concurrently, which included presidential and local elections, as well as midterm elections of the National Islamic Assembly (the parliament) and Assembly of Experts. Iran usually holds local elections at the same time as national elections to boost participation. However, during this election, due to the lack of enthusiasm around the presidential race, lower numbers also turned out in the local elections except in areas where local issues really mattered to the voters. For those who showed up at the polling stations - less than 50% of total eligible voters - their vote didn’t necessarily signal support of the regime or contentment with the status quo.
This was evidenced in the large number of spoiled ballots (3,470,688 or 13.6%), which in both local and presidential races competed significantly with the winners of the polls. The spoiled ballots even went against the supreme leader’s advice, which called it acting against Islam.
Although there was a general sense of disappointment regarding the electoral process as a tool for change during this electoral cycle, it did not cause Iranians to overlook the electoral violations and election-related crimes that were happening around them. On the contrary, during the campaign period, the election day and post election reports of election violations came in from across the country, and via outlets across the political spectrum.
Though Iran's electoral process has never been transparent, since the parliamentary elections of 2020 the government has stopped publishing the details of the results (see here for the 2020 elections). For several years now, even the website of the Ministry of Interior Affairs (www.moi.ir), which is responsible for publishing the national election results in Iran, has been closed to users trying to access it from outside of the country.
Many International observers recommend that electoral bodies publish election results per polling station to promote transparency and allow better scrutiny of the results.
Unlike previous presidential elections where the MOI was publishing the election results per county in the presidential election (see maps of previous elections’ results here) in the 2021election the MOI only published the election day turnout percentages per each province. Most province governors have published some aspects of the tabulation results in their provinces. However, that neither follows a unified standard across the country, nor is always accurate. Some provinces, such as Fars province, have only published estimates, and Isfahan province hasn’t published any tabulation result.
The size of the pie charts in this map represents the percentage of turnout per province.
While the emphasis of the MOI and other sources on the voter turnout rates per province could have helped feeding the narrative of the opposition groups, it could have also been distracting from other transparency interests and tabulation issues, especially in an environment, where there is not real demand from the MOI and other electoral bodies to release the full tabulation datasets. For instance, the situation of almost 500,000 uncast ballots is still unknown. Uncast ballots are those that have been issued but not placed in a ballot box. This could be due to people not casting their ballots, the ballot paper being damaged before casting, or the ballots being lost or abused.
In the meantime, Iran5050.com - claiming to be affiliated with the judiciary of Iran - published a comprehensive tabulation of Iran’s 2021 presidential elections. At that time, president-elect Ebrahim Raisi had still not resigned from his position as the head of Iran's judiciary. This dataset seems to have been heavily manipulated to portray a different story about the results of the June 2021 election. Most notably, the data shows a much higher voter turnout and much lower number of spoiled ballots than published official results, which were approved by the Guardian Council. Moreover, while the official results showed spoiled ballots in the second position and beating all other candidates besides Raisi, the Iran5050 Data presents a much lower number of spoiled ballots (by nearly half) and higher votes for Abdol Nasser Hemmati, the former head of the central bank of Iran. It would appear this data has been designed to present a much different narrative from what happened in June, with a more favorable narrative for Raisi and showing an election in which Iranians participated heavily with a tough competition between the two leading candidates. It is not known to Nabz-Iran who is behind the website nor the purpose of publishing such a fictional dataset. However, contexts like Iran where there is not enough transparency in the electoral process and the formal electoral body fails to publish the accurate and holistic election data allow for such other groups to fill in the gap and publish their own alternative narratives, which could further deepen the public mistrust in the whole elections.
Reports of violations
The widespread apathy and boycott sentiments didn’t hinder many Iranians’ from paying attention to widespread violations of election laws and regulations at the various stages of the electoral process, including during candidate campaigns, on election day, and during the tabulation and announcement of the results. Reaction to the election violations was reflected in different manners depending on the context and scale of the violation. In some cases, especially in the local elections, it was possible to submit official reports of election violations that individuals observed. In other cases, voters shared copies of documents, photos and footage of what they perceived as election violations through media and/or social media.
At the time of writing this article, the city and village ballots have been ordered to be recounted in at least 54 cities, and the local elections were annulled in at least nine cities, due to various election-related fraud. In addition, there were formal charges of vote buying in at least 18 cities across the country. Widespread vote buying allegations and other election fraud, - such as using close relatives and family members of candidates at the polling stations, ballot box stuffing and multiple voting - were among the most reported reasons for such disputes.
Nevertheless, press reporting about election violations were mainly focused on the local elections, and there are not many reports about the violations and crimes during the presidential elections. This, of course, does not indicate that there were no violations during the presidential elections. As some Nabz-Iran’s users showed, social media accounts were full of anecdotal reports of campaign material in polling stations or abuse of government resources. Moreover, the parliamentary committees responsible for vetting city and village council candidates used their power to filter out opponents and, in some cases, members of the minority groups, such as Zorostrians.
Media and social media reports - both official and otherwise - about election violations and election-related crimes tend to be limited in what they cover and are largely preoccupied with concern over vote-buying. This is particularly true among Iranian government officials and state media, when they do highlight violations.
The MOI initiated pre-election voter education campaigns via state-owned TV, radio and other media outlets. The law enforcement crackdown on vote buying during the elections was also widely publicized in the country.
It is true that vote buying is indeed a serious problem in Iranian elections, especially in local races where tribal and other local rivalries are prominent. However, while reports also suggest that presidential campaigns have been involved in different illegal forms of voter influence, such as distributing food as charity or bribing the tribal chiefs, these aspects receive less attention from election officials and the media.
The government remains less keen on preventing or discussing some other violations and aspects that damage the integrity of elections, namely: campaign finances, abuse of the government resources, campaigning outside the legal period and so on.
On the other end of the spectrum, many opposition groups, both in-country and some in the Iranian diaspora, also focus on particular types of election violations. In particular, rights-related violations such as the right to run for office (related to disqualifications) are highlighted more in the narratives and reporting of these groups; other problems that could affect the outcome of the vote, such as violation of the secrecy of the ballot or vote buying, receive less attention.
This limited approach to overall information on election integrity questions, from both inside and outside of the government, deprives Iranians of information that they need to make an informed choice or take part in actions to genuinely improve the competitive process. This may be the result of a limited view of elections as individual contests related to specific outcomes at the moment rather than elections as a broader process which only improves with widespread inclusive participation, objective and comprehensive observation and demand for accountability.
Moreover, many Iranians see elections as periodic disconnected events. Such a view deprives them from monitoring the long term aspects and inhibits actors from developing policy-driven election platforms, engaging broad constituencies and advocating for constructive changes in the electoral processes to make them more transparent, accountable and inclusive.
Nabz-Iran’s Report an Election Violation Form prototype
Shortly before election day, Nabz-Iran launched an online election violation reporting form, which was shared on social media, via various VPN services, and directly with Iranians in the country. The form asked them to report election violations they observed. The below infographic demonstrates the violation reports that were collected.
The majority of the reports received by Nabz-Iran point to a lack of access to information during the election period. This refers mostly to the heavy censorship and the restriction of the opposition and/or independent voices in the country. Given the fact that only informed citizens would be able to make choices best serving their interests, this election failed to offer even the usual limited openness that traditionally would be tolerated before elections to encourage citizen participation. Accompanied with the heavy disqualification of candidates both at the presidential, as well as the local elections exacerbated the voters’ lack of informed choice.
The absence of an active political party system also contributes to the situation - candidates cannot use a party platform to identify local issues and provide solutions in their campaigns. As an example, this was most obviously displayed when, during a ClubHouse meeting, a participant asked one of the city council election candidates from the southern city of Bushehr, what was his mandate for the council? He could not mention any specifics and had to explain that he has broad ideas, but he could only answer the question specifically once he is elected and serves in the council.
The other two major concerns that have been reported are abuse of the government resources, which mainly concerns the presidential election, and voter intimidation and harassment. While Nabz-Iran is not able to verify such claims independently, similar concerns have also been raised during in-person interviews with in-country actors and on social media.
Surprisingly, and in contrast to official in-country media reports, vote buying has been less of a concern for citizen observers, judging by the limited number of reports received by Nabz-Iran. This could confirm the selective attitude in reporting violations by the Iranian media, which were mainly focused on vote buying. A number of campaign intimidation incidents have also been reported, among other types of violations.
All in all, this experience demonstrates a general need for better voter education, especially regarding their rights and the various types of election violations, as well as a need for independent election observation in Iran.
Lack of independent election observation
Iran doesn’t allow independent election observation. The feedback loop for improving the integrity of the electoral processes is broken, and civil society is deprived from playing a critical role in overseeing the conduct of election officials and encouraging greater accountability and integrity. Moreover, the Guardian Council, the government body responsible for aspects of the electoral process such as vetting of the candidates, is also the ultimate observation body. As a result, there is no independent oversight of its own conduct.
Credible elections largely rely on voter confidence and trust, and election officials are expected to perform the duties by ensuring transparency and creating trust in the overall process. In that sense, the lack of independent observation, as well as the secrecy in the Guardian Council’s, and other electoral bodies, decision-making process plays a significant role in undermining voter confidence in Iran.