Iran’s Bipolar Election

An Iranian woman stands next to a wall plastered with election posters of Iranian President and election candidate Hassan Rouhani on a street in the capital Tehran, on 17 May 2017. AFP/Atta Kenare

Who are the leading candidates in the 19 May election and what should we know about the top two?

The May 2017 election is essentially a two-way race between the incumbent Hassan Rouhani and Ebrahim Raisi, the custodian of Iran’s holiest shrine in Mashhad. Their shadow candidates, incumbent Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri and Tehran mayor Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, withdrew their candidacy in support of Rouhani and Raisi, respectively. The other two contenders would play a marginal role or could drop out at the last minute.

Never before has an incumbent Iranian president faced such a serious challenge to his re-election. The closest a challenger came to unseat a first-term president was in 2009 when then-President Mahmood Ahmadinejad faced Mir Hossein Mousavi – an election that ended in a highly-disputed outcome and a subsequent popular uprising against what many viewed as rigged results. But this time, it is the establishment’s candidate, Raisi, who is challenging the incumbent, compelling the latter to adopt an anti-establishment rhetoric that one would expect from a dissident, not a sitting president of the Islamic Republic. For instance, referring to Raisi’s role as a judge on the infamous “death committee” that executed thousands of leftist dissidents in late 1980s and later as attorney general, Rouhani said “the people will say no to those who over the course of 38 years only executed and jailed; those who cut out tongues and sewed mouths shut; … those [who] banned the pen and banned the picture. Those people shouldn’t even breathe the word freedom, for it shames freedom”.

Rouhani and Raisi, however, have some similarities:

  • Both are consummate insiders. The former is a product of the system’s national security apparatus; the latter spent more than three decades in the judicial system;
  • Both have a close relationship with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, even though Raisi is ideologically closer to him than is Rouhani;
  • Both are clerics, but Raisi’s descendance from the Prophet’s lineage allows him to put on a black turban, whereas Rouhani wears white;
  • They are both members of the Assembly of Experts, which is tasked with choosing the supreme leader’s successor, a position to which both aspire;
  • They are both committed to the nuclear deal, even though Rouhani is its most prominent proponent and Raisi in the past has been its critic.

But their differences also are stark:

  • The two men present different visions for the future of the Islamic Republic. Rouhani, who is more pragmatic, tends to emphasise the role of elected institutions and the constitution more than divine authority, supports integration into the global economy and engagement with the West, and advocates for relative socio-cultural freedom. Raisi, a so-called principalist (one who seeks to protect the ideological principles of the revolution), espouses more conservative Islamic socio-cultural norms, and sees an unavoidable clash of interest between the West and an independent Iran.
  • Rouhani has had a long record of executive experience (as national security advisor for sixteen years and as president for four), while Raisi has a meager one (a year and a half as the custodian of the Astan Quds Shrine in Mashhad), having spent a lifetime in the judiciary.

What do Iranians think they are choosing between in this election?

The electorate, which is aging and more mature than in previous elections, seems to mostly care about one thing: making ends meet. The nuclear deal, Rouhani’s key achievement, has undoubtedly benefitted the country’s economy, which grew by 7 per cent last year. But 6 per cent of that growth was in the energy sector and the dividends are yet to trickle down to the population. Both candidates have promised to improve the country’s economic wellbeing, fight endemic corruption and end smuggling.
Taking a page from former President Ahmadinejad’s economic populism and social justice agenda, Raisi has promised to triple cash handout subsidies for the disenfranchised. While Rouhani has succeeded in taming inflation, unemployment is the main cause of economic malaise. It is now at 12.7 per cent generally, while youth unemployment (for ages 18-29) hovers around 31 per cent for men and 53 per cent for women. Raisi has pledged a government of “Dignity and Work” that would create 1.5 million jobs per year by relying on domestic capabilities, based on the supreme leader’s favorite theme of building an “economy of resistance”. Rouhani, however, argues that tripling the subsidies would trigger runaway inflation, that the economy cannot thrive in isolation and that, without foreign capital and technology, there is only so many new jobs Iran can produce. Neither has presented a concrete, detailed program.

What is at stake in this election for the establishment?

In a sense, it boils down to a fundamental choice between two priorities: short-term stability of the system versus long-term survival of the revolution.

Iran is at an inflection point: the supreme leader, now 78, is paving the ground for his succession. His generation of Iranian leaders, the revolutionary Jacobins, are fading away by the force of nature, while a frustrated Iranian youth is seeking jobs and a move away from crisis to normalcy. This is while the leadership in Tehran sees dark clouds gathering as the Trump administration seeks to once again put Iran under pressure. And herein lies the dilemma. Should the system opt for short-term stability – a crucial requirement of a successful transition to the next supreme leader? Or should the system opt for long-term protection of the revolution by empowering Raisi, one of Khamenei’s students and a loyal disciple, to consolidate the principalists’ power and marginalise the pragmatists?

If the system chooses stability, continuity would serve its interests better than change. This would allow it to implement its strategy of presenting the Islamic Republic’s best face, protecting the nuclear deal, and seeking to drive a wedge between the U.S. and other members of the P5+1(China, France, Germany, Russia and the UK), should the Trump administration seek to undermine it, by leaving it in the steady hands of Rouhani as well as his team of professional – and smiling – diplomats. But this option has the risk that Rouhani, who doesn’t share Ayatollah Khamenei’s vision for the future of the revolution, could influence the succession.

Choosing revolutionary purity, however, would present some immediate downsides. If an uncharismatic man who was virtually unknown to the public defeats a sitting president whom all polls have shown ahead in an upset, albeit close victory, unrest could follow. This would be a risky gambit for a system that believes regime change is once again on Washington’s agenda and has barely recovered from the near-fatal 2009 experience. But the same fear could incentivise the system to close ranks now in order to better manage more serious future threats. The other immediate risk is that a Raisi presidency, in particular given his human rights record, would make it easier for Washington to demonise Iran and more difficult for the Europeans to side with Tehran.

Arguably, a relatively narrow incumbent win could allow the system to reconcile these seemingly incongruous priorities. Rouhani would continue presenting a reasonable Iranian face to the world, but would be sufficiently diminished internally so as not to pose a challenge to the establishment. Raisi’s defeat would be a setback, especially given his political allies’ considerable last-minute efforts to boost his candidacy and the principalist camp’s hitherto elusive unity in backing him, but it has already catapulted him to national politics, raised his profile and created a constituency for him, which could serve as a prelude to his succeeding the supreme leader.

How much say do the people have in this choice?

They have an important say. The rule of the electoral game in Iran is for the most part that the system controls the ‘input’ by weeding out unwanted candidates, but accepts the ‘output’ of the result. The only real exception to this rule was the 2009 elections. Since Iran has no voter registration system, there could be tampering with the results. If such tampering is marginal, it might not have serious political consequences. However, brazen rigging that appeared to rob Rohani of his victory could well trigger unrest. This is something the leadership might think twice about before encouraging it, as this would occur at a time of growing U.S. pressure and possible renewed appetite for regime change.

Rouhani leads in the polls, but a large segment of the electorate remains undecided. Each campaign is seeking to swing the undecideds in its favor, though they are focused on mobilising different demographics. Raisi’s team is targeting rural areas and lower-income strata, the support base of ex-President Ahmadinejad, while Rouhani is courting the often apathetic urban middle class. Turnout can significantly tilt the balance on Election Day. Since 1980, participation rate for presidential elections has varied between 50 and 85 per cent. Around 56 million Iranians are eligible to vote this round. Given that elections for nearly 200,000 local council seats are held on the same day, a relatively high turnout is expected.

What has the campaign shown about the state of Iranian democracy?

Iranian elections are unfree, unfair and unpredictable. This is because the Guardian Council, an unelected body, vets the candidates and bars those whom the system deems undesirable. Of the 1,636 contenders who threw their hats and turbans in the race, only six could go through the Guardian Council’s filter this year. Apparently even being an ex-president is a disqualifier: former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani was disqualified in 2013, and this year Ahmadinejad was barred from running in the election.

Yet at the same time elections are highly contested. The electoral campaign is as short as it is vivid, prompting a degree of political openness that is not tolerated at other times. For instance, candidates accused one another of corruption in live televised debates and questioned the government’s diplomatic and defensive strategies, statements that could put a journalist or an academic in prison in normal times. As imperfect as elections are in Iran, they possess a degree of maturity and pluralism that is rare in the region.

Given restrictions on state-controlled media – which stifle criticism of state policies and even censure the candidates’ campaign videos – social media have become the main platform for political debate, smear campaigns, fake news and “alternative facts”. Messaging apps like Telegram, which has millions of users in Iran, have created a sphere of debate that is no longer controllable by the state.

How will the elections impact the Iran nuclear deal?

In contrast to what was witnessed during the U.S. elections, none of the Iranian candidates promises to tear up the nuclear agreement or renegotiate it. This is for two reasons: first, the accord was the product of a strategic decision taken by consensus and approved by key stakeholders in the Iranian political system; and second, recent polls suggest the deal remains popular despite widespread discontent over its limited economic dividends. All candidates have pledged to remain committed to Iran’s obligations under the deal.

Raisi, however, criticises Rouhani for being weak and naïve in expecting the U.S. to remain committed to its end of the bargain. He argues that only a strong Iranian leadership willing to stand up to the U.S. is able to “cash in the deal’s cheque”. For his part, Rouhani has emphasised that Raisi and his allies, who opposed the agreement during the negotiations, must not be allowed to become its custodian.

Regardless of the outcome, Iran is likely to pursue a strategy of remaining committed to the deal. Tehran will try to prevent the revival of a united international front against it by seeking to drive a wedge between the U.S. and the other negotiating parties (the UK, France, Germany, Russia and China). But as noted above, Rouhani and Raisi can be expected to do so in widely diverging ways.

Ali Vaez, Senior Analyst, Iran.

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