Freedom never comes free. Long before this concept was dissected by existentialists, Iranians have been catching glimpses of it in the mirror of their history. So when Ayatollah Khamenei says that Iran holds the “freest election in the world,” this rhetoric leads Iranian citizens to ask for its price.
“The freest election in the world is held in Iran, where religions democracy has been established and has set an example [for other countries],” Khamenei said about the forthcoming June 14 presidential elections. “They should take care not to make the people lose faith in the elections. They should not constantly say that there should be free elections. It is obvious that there should be free elections.”
He should consult a dictionary about the meaning of the word “free.” What is left unsaid is for whom the elections will be “free”—the people or his government? So far, Khamenei’s government has blocked certain news media to stifle any advocacy against his authority, and continues to give incentives that border on ultimatums to increase voter turnout rates.
Even though Khamenei was once seen as a man who has paid a personal price for Iran’s struggles for freedom from the Shah’s rule as a revolutionary in the 1970s, for many he is now the face of an absolutist system of rule. If anything, this proves another old adage: you are only a revolutionary until you achieve power. The Iranian doctrine of velayat-e faqih mixes elements of both the religious and secular worlds. Although he serves as the head of an Islamic Republic, Khamenei’s government includes elements of secular administration, with a parliament, president and cabinet. However, to qualify for the presidency, you must pledge loyalty to the theocratic system—which is where President Ahmadinejad, who does not even pretend to do this, comes into the picture.
Even before Ahmadinejad began clashing with his superior, he challenged Khamenei’s legitimacy when voters accused him of rigging polls during his elections in 2009. The Green Movement was born in the chaos that ensued. The movement’s main goal was to safeguard “freedom” during the elections by boycotting them. The movement’s leaders are no direct threat to this year’s election, as both Mir Hossein Mousavi and former parliament speaker Mehdi Karroubi have both been under house arrest since 2011. This has all happened in the name of “freedom.”
Making sure the next presidency cannot usurp the freedom he already paid a price for and to secure his legitimacy, Khamenei has given up being a backseat driver during elections. He has decided to take the wheel this time around, and so he is now on a campaign of his own. His slogan is “freedom,” and his number one cause is a high voter turnout rate. This usually demands extensive use of the media, but in an interesting twist much of the news media has been censored, such as the conservative publication Tabnak.
For voters to turn out, they need incentives they cannot turn down—such as their job security. There is no law making voting mandatory, but voters on June 14 will receive a stamp in their national identification papers. There is a suspicion among some Iranians that this stamp may become an unofficial requirement for obtaining professional permits and government positions. This was also the case in last year’s parliamentary elections, though it ended up backfiring on the government because of the number of ballots that had to be discarded because they were illegible.
During a visit to the holy city of Qom in January, Khamenei warned of potential enemies who may attempt to undermine the vote: “Those who may offer general advice about the elections—and it could be out of compassion—that the elections should be like this or that, should take care not to further the goal of the enemy,” he said. He added, “All should know that the people’s participation in the elections will take the country forward … an election full of excitement will be a major blow to the enemy.”
Meanwhile, Mousavi and Karroubi sit at home. Just as “freedom being free” is an expression contradicted by Iran’s history, “religious democracy” remains an oxymoron.