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17 May 2017, Gateway House

Iran polls: path cleared for Rouhani?

Iran’s presidential elections have always been unmatched in the unpredictability of their outcome. Will the pro-reform vote be able to hold out against Ebrahim Raisi, the current president’s most serious competitor, with his appeal to the masses and traditional, conformist Iranians?

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Iranians go to the polls on May 19 to elect the country’s new president. The incumbent president Hassan Rouhani is in the race once again, but his rivals are similarly powerful and enjoy a strong popular base.

The most exciting development in the arrangement of the candidates was that, up until a few hours ago, Rouhani’s own vice-president, Eshaq Jahangiri, was also running for president. He has now dropped his bid; had he not done so, his boss’s vote would certainly have been affected adversely with the emergence of a big division among the pro-reform voters.

Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, a major conservative politician and the current mayor of Tehran, has also dropped out of the contest, throwing his weight behind Ebrahim Raisi. Raisi represents the conservatives and is expected to be Rouhani’s most serious competitor. In March 2016, he was named by the Supreme Leader as the custodian of the most important holy shrine in Iran, located in the north-eastern city of Mashhad — the eighth Shia Imam Reza. Ghalibaf has run unsuccessfully for the office of president twice before, and was likely to have been a serious threat to both Rouhani and Raisi. It was Rouhani whose vote faced fundamental derailment from an erstwhile contender such as Ghalibaf.

The majority of the forward-thinking, progressive population of Tehran–actually those who paved the way for the presidency of Ahmadinejad–is attracted by Ghalibaf’s charisma, his glaringly Italian suits and his sumptuous investments in Tehran’s infrastructure —roads and skyscrapers, for instance. Yet, those traditionalists who cheer for Ghalibaf conveniently disregard his failure to complete the construction of Tehran’s Grand Mosque after more than a decade.

Young voters are largely expected to vote for Rouhani, a logical precondition for avoiding further tensions with the rest of the world, based on what the history of moderation and the reform movement in Iran shows. The election of Raisi, his senior rival, is another option. Raisi is an ultra-conservative cleric, but has surprisingly voiced commitment to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), popularly referred to as the Iran Deal.

Both contenders are clerics. However, Raisi also appeals to the masses and the traditional, conformist Iranians who prefer an orthodox Muslim cleric to be in charge of the nation’s administrative branch instead of a non-traditional, progressive one, educated in the UK, staunchly committed to the constitutional development and growth of Iran, especially in the realm of press freedom and women’s rights.

The conservative newspapers and some myopic broadcasters are vilifying Rouhani, lambasting his socio-economic policies as Election Day approaches, which is exactly what happened to the late Ayatollah Rafsanjani. Rouhani has been at the receiving end of a series of ad hominem attacks, especially since his strong performance in the televised debates. If such media attention influences the public vote, then—akin to what happened in 2009 —there isn’t much likelihood of Rouhani emerging the winner. In 2009[1], arguably, it was the media that won Ahmadinejad the presidency.

Eshaq Jahangiri—until he stepped down —was candidly advocating reform and moderation in the televised debates and during the campaign season. This is what Rouhani himself rarely does as a politician; his education and demeanour have made him a perpetually politically correct figure, unable to expose truths that bear open discussion. With Jahangiri’s withdrawal, what had to be publicly said about the realities and ideals of the reform movement in Iran has been said — and voters will not be in doubt about which moderate candidate to back.

The hopes of forward-thinking Iranians should be pinned on an overwhelming victory for Rouhani so that further complications are avoided, including a run-off round, featuring Rouhani and Raisi. If there’s a second ballot, global observers will have to expect a serious face-off in which a divided population, reputed to be making capricious choices that have sometimes changed even at the eleventh hour, shortly after the final debate and shortly before Election Day, must make a sober and defining decision.

The two other contenders, Mostafa Mir-Salim and Mostafa Hashemitaba, can be safely considered benchwarmers.

So the only unquestioned fact about Iran’s elections is its unpredictability. For one thing, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was the least likely candidate to overcome Rafsanjani in the 2005 polls; it was a likelihood confirmed only by the pre-election polls.

When Ahmadinejad announced a bid for presidency for the first time in 2005, there were not so many people who would give him a chance of winning even a plurality. Then, it was Ali Larijani, the ultra-conservative Speaker of Parliament and Ghalibaf, running then for the first time, who were mostly believed to be heating up the competition.

The same year, with Ahmadinejad rising to power, a large group of Iranian intellectuals, authors, journalists and activists were fiercely campaigning for the ex-president and two-time parliament speaker Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. But the voters’ decision produced a result that plunged the country into an eight-year-long political crisis and a challenging standoff with the international community. It exacerbated Iran’s nuclear crisis, laid the groundwork for the imposition of a set of gruelling sanctions on 80 million people, and made it impossible for the nation to re-emerge from the ashes.

Now, although Raisi doesn’t maintain an apocalyptic worldview the way Ahmadinejad did, and by virtue of being a cleric, is committed to many principles to which Ahmadinejad wasn’t, it goes without saying that Rouhani’s re-election will bolster the foundations of the reform movement, empower women activists, entrepreneurs and journalists, and strengthen the country’s ties with the outside world.

Kourosh Ziabari is an award-winning Iranian journalist, media correspondent and peace activist. He is a regular contributor to Gateway House.

This blog was exclusively written for Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. You can read more exclusive features here.

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[1] As I described in the chapter 7 of the book ‘Media, Power, and Politics in the Digital Age: The 2009 Presidential Election Uprising in Iran’ edited by Prof Yahya Kamalipour.