Despite Iran’s history of election surprises, Rohani could triumph
Past presidential election surprises in Iran — Mohammed Khatami in 1997, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2005 — caution against believing that Hassan Rohani is heading for victory on May 19. Recent shocks elsewhere, with Britain’s June 2016 Brexit vote and Americans electing Donald Trump in November, add to a sense that Rohani is vulnerable as he seeks a second term.
As in the United States and Britain, social media counts. Candidates utilise Telegram and Instagram, which are generally not blocked and voters can follow on the faster speeds of G3 and G4.
But Saeid Golkar, visiting fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, said most Iranians were sceptical about pledges of cash handouts and higher subsidies from Rohani’s main challengers.
“Iran had its wave of populism ten years earlier (than the West), and the people were affected badly,” Golkar said. “The big cities, the youth just don’t believe these promises.”
In 2005, Ahmadinejad won in a landslide promising to restore national greatness and make ordinary Iranians better off but he left office in 2013 with 40% inflation, banks weighed down with non-performing loans and relations strained with Iran’s neighbours and the West.
Even the uncertainty over foreign investment fostered by Trump’s threats to torpedo the 2015 nuclear agreement with world powers or introduce new sanctions does not seem to have destroyed many Iranians’ belief that there is no serious alternative to Rohani’s course.
“Ahmadinejad talked about self-reliance and resistance but what we got was higher prices and factories closing,” a Tehran professional said. “Yes, we want Iran strong internationally but we also want good relations with the outside world. People aren’t enthusiastic about the election but most will vote.”
As expected, Rohani’s main challengers in a field of six, are two principlists. Ebrahim Raeisi, chairman of the Imam Reza shrine in Mashhad, and Tehran Mayor Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf focus their appeals on poorer Iranians. A campaign video for Raeisi highlighted contrasting images of street children and mansions with swimming pools.
“It had a strong emotional appeal,” said Golkar. “In showing the wealth gap, it subtly blames Rohani as an oligarch who doesn’t care about the poor.”
There has been no sign that either Raeisi or Ghalibaf will withdraw in the other’s favour. While this does not rule out one of them facing Rohani in a run-off ballot, needed if no one wins a majority on May 19, having two competing principlists blunts their message.
Polling is unreliable — it is either conducted by phone from outside Iran or done inside the country by vested interests — and therefore cannot clearly indicate which principlist is best placed to beat Rohani.
“Polling inside Iran is part of someone’s psychological operation,” said Golkar. “The media related to the [Islamic] Revolutionary Guards [Corps] (IRGC) is tending to support Raeisi, and the media closer to the Basij [the 4 million-strong volunteer group linked to the IRGC] is more pro-Ghalibaf. Fars News is more for Ghalibaf, Tasnim more for Raeisi.”
The campaign confirms a realignment in Iranian politics with the 2015 nuclear accord. The reformists, slowly re-emerging since sidelined after street protests at Ahmadinejad’s disputed 2009 re-election, again back Rohani because of the nuclear deal, his cautious relaxation of social restrictions and his programme of economic reform.
Eshaq Jahangiri, a fourth candidate, who served in Khatami’s reformist government and is Rohani’s first vice-president, has been talked up by some principlists, probably to take votes from Rohani but Jahangiri is widely expected to drop out in favour of Rohani, who has also received Khatami’s support.
Rohani, essentially a pragmatic conservative, has also been endorsed by Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani and by Ali Akbar Nateqh-Nouri, senior adviser to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Larijani and Nateqh- Nouri are — to coin a phrase — “moderate principlists” who support the nuclear deal and Rohani’s government.
But victory for Rohani would be a defeat for populism and the hard-line principlists and it would not shift the political centre of gravity from conservatives to reformists. Nor would it change Iran’s foreign and regional policies.
It also would not end Raeisi’s likely ambition to succeed Khamenei as leader. After this presidential campaign, Raeisi will be better known. The decision about who follows Khamenei, 78 this year and who had prostate surgery in 2014, lies with the 88 clerics of the Assembly of Experts.
For Ghalibaf, who has run for president twice before, this election may end his political career, especially if he loses the Tehran mayoralty with defeat in council elections on the same day.
“In [the presidential poll of] 2005 Ghalibaf focused on the middle class, then in 2013 portrayed himself as a revolutionary,” said Golkar. “Now he talks about poor people, although his glasses are a designer brand. On social media, they satirise him as a chameleon, someone who copies others to achieve power.”