If proof were ever needed that democracy is defined by far more than the ballot box, look no further than Iran’s parliamentary elections, which are taking place today (Friday). It is the country’s first national poll since the popular protests against Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s disputed 2009 presidential election win were brutally beaten down. The Iranian regime will attempt to portray the ballot as an expression of freedom and national unity. Yet in reality, Iran remains a serial abuser of human rights and a place where elections are used to suffocate, rather than generate, people power.

These are uncertain times for Tehran. With the world determined to bring her back from a dangerous nuclear precipice, Iran’s global image stands at perhaps an all-time low. Meanwhile, much of the Iranian public is incensed at rampant inflation — the national currency has halved in value over the past two months — and international sanctions threaten to increase the economic pinch. Unsurprisingly, therefore, Iran’s Islamist leadership appears determined to use the election as a demonstration of national strength to the world. The image of Ayatollah Khamenei reportedly dominates Tehran billboards with the accompanying slogan:

Elections are a sign of a nation’s livelihood and awareness

And so, while the democratic world uses elections as an instrument of change, in Iran the ballot box is utilized to help preserve a status quo characterized by despotism, repression and cruelty, where to dissent is is to risk your life. A year ago, with no legal process, the leaders of the country’s opposition, Mehdi Karroubi and 2009 presidential candidate Mir Hossein Moussavi, were condemned to house arrest, where they still remain, with little access to family or visitors. Ordinary Iranians are also brutally punished for expressing views, beliefs or values deemed incompatible with those of the regime.

Among those currently facing the death penalty is blogger Saeed Malekpour, who has been found guilty of “spreading corruption.” Meanwhile, Christian Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani is on death row for the “crime” of apostasy, having been handed the medieval choice between renouncing his faith or certain death. At the same time, a mother of two, Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, faces death by stoning after being convicted of adultery. To its credit, the European Union has strongly condemned these incidents and the kangaroo courts that pass for much of Iran’s justice system.

However, these cases are far from isolated. This week, Amnesty International released a damning report chronicling Iran’s worsening human rights records. There were about four times as many public executions in 2011 than in 2010 — a statistic that sends out a chilling public message of fear.

The report also details serious restrictions on freedom to communicate and access information, including the requirement that Iranian internet cafes install CCTV systems. Meanwhile, one of the country’s top police officers has described Google as an “espionage tool.” In Iran’s despotic regime, everyone — even everyday internet users — is suspected of subversion.

Perhaps most tellingly, though, Amnesty’s report outlines the “dramatic escalation” in the repression of freedom of expression in the lead-up to this week’s parliamentary election. A recent wave of arrests has targeted students, lawyers, journalists, ethnic minorities and other perceived opponents. In short, nobody can be allowed to interfere with a carefully stage-managed election, intended entirely as an exercise in strengthening the regime’s interests.

Iranian officials might attempt to reject the overwhelming evidence of tyranny by pointing to near-universal suffrage in elections for the 285-member parliament, of which five seats are reserved for minority representatives. However, Iran’s parliament is almost entirely decorative, fulfilling a purely consultative role. Thus it provides a token veneer of democracy to a thoroughly repressive system.

With Moussavi and Karroubi tellingly under house arrest, the bulk of potential reformist candidates have decided not to put their names forward for Friday’s election. Although the public may be free to vote, their choice is severely limited. Even if Iran’s electorate were able to elect a cadre of reformers to parliament, it would be entirely subservient to the real source of Iranian power — the country’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

The facade of elections cannot and must not be allowed to distract international attention from the wholesale abuse of human rights instituted by Khamenei and his advisers, who operate a regime designed to govern through fear and repression. As Iran continues to flex its muscles on the international stage, the rest of the world must advance its criticism beyond isolated incidents of oppression. They must send a clear message that Iran’s tyrannical regime has no place in the family of civilized nations.