On the 19th of May, Iranians will have the chance to vote for their country’s most senior elected politician in the 12th Presidential Elections to be held since the Revolution of 1979. The Islamic Republic of Iran is run by a combination of elected politicians and appointed figures from among the country’s most senior religious scholars; the President is the highest elected authority, second only to the Supreme Leader, though he is also accountable to Parliament and the Assembly of Experts, which checks to make sure laws adhere to the accepted interpretation of Islamic Law. Current President Hassan Rouhani, who is campaigning for another four-year term, has found himself struggling to balance the demands of the Iranian electorate, senior officials, and the international community. The unique structure of the Iranian government, with its multiple centres of power, has meant that he now faces the strange reality of an electoral race with an opponent whom his boss and other important figures prefer.
Rouhani came to power on a platform often described in Western media as “moderate”; unlike his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, he argued that Iran needed to reconcile with the United States and its allies in order to improve its economy. The “moderate” epithet certainly doesn’t make him a friend of religious minorities or political activists in Iran, and it would be difficult to describe current Iranian foreign policy, especially its military intervention in Syria, as having been moderated by Mr Rouhani’s presence. His greatest achievement as President remains the Nuclear Deal, in which Iran agreed to comply with International Atomic Energy Association regulations and to not pursue nuclear weapons capability, in exchange for the removal of international economic sanctions.
This policy was originally quite popular among Iranians, who hoped it would strengthen Iran’s economy. However, the economic situation has not improved as much as was originally hoped, and some of Rouhani’s neoliberal domestic policies are seen as being at the root of growing inequality in the country. Although Rouhani is seen by Western commentators as less conservative than other members of the Iranian political elite, this analysis ignores the fact that, in Iranian politics, religious conservatives often aim for working-class votes by advocating for increases in welfare payments and food subsidies. This is certainly true of Ibrahim Raisi, who has emerged as Rouhani’s main rival after Mayor of Tehran Mohammed Baqer Ghalibaf withdrew to support him. It is common in Iranian elections for both conservative and liberal candidates to form blocs to oust their opponents, with candidates from each camp withdrawing to give their support to the person with the greatest chance of winning.
‘some of rouhani’s neoliberal domestic policies are seen as being at the root of growing inequality in The country.’
Although relatively unknown among the public until now, Raisi has benefited from criticisms of Rouhani, as well as the support of the conservative establishment. In an apparent allusion to Rouhani’s enthusiasm for rapprochement with the West, Ayatollah Khamenei advised voters to choose the candidate who would upset “the enemy” the most. The idea of an external enemy trying to undermine the will of the Iranian people has been common currency in Iran ever since 1979, when it was feared that the US and its allies would try and overthrow the Islamic Republic. While not all Iranians feel this way, criticising the west – especially the USA and Israel – is seen as proof that a candidate is sufficiently patriotic and supportive of the Iranian Revolution. Raisi is also trying to present himself as the representative of the Revolution’s social justice aims by calling for large increases in welfare payments. In combination with his promise to take a tougher stance towards Western powers, this could be a popular move.
Opinion polls still put Rouhani in the lead ahead of voting on Friday, and all of Iran’s post-revolutionary Presidents so far have won a second term. However, Rouhani’s predecessor Ahmadinejad is thought to have done this through massive electoral fraud, and it can be argued that voter faith in the electoral process has not fully recovered since. What is more, a second Rouhani presidency may well be undermined by the difficulties in his relationship with the Supreme Leader and the leadership of the Revolutionary Guard, all of which are thought to favour his opponent. Abstentions on Friday could see the elections run to a second round if Rouhani cannot achieve more than fifty per cent of the vote, meaning he could still go down in history as the Islamic Republic’s first ever one-term president.