Iran’s Upcoming Elections: What to Expect
by Kimya Zahedi
Iranians vote for their next president on May 19th. Both the immediate outcome and longer term consequences of that election will impact both regional relations within the Middle East and the US role in the region.
The Iranian Electoral System
In the eyes of the Iranian state, high voter turnout serves as a testament to the strength, legitimacy and popularity of the Islamic Republic, particularly to the international community. The Iranian government therefore goes to great lengths to ensure that people have access to the polls and that the voting process is accessible and easy. In the 2013 elections, around 50 out of 79 million people were registered to vote, and voter turnout was about 72%.
The Presidential election requires a candidate to win by a simple majority, otherwise the two candidates receiving the most votes enter a second, run-off election.
Who are the front-runners?
There are officially six Presidential candidates. These are the six people who both announced their candidacy and also passed the Guardian Council’s candidate vetting process. Notably, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad did not make the cut. Since two of the six are not popular and have very little chance of winning, we focus our analysis on the top four candidates.
Ebrahim Raisi: A judicial cleric, Raisi entered the race as the lesser known of the two conservative candidates. He currently serves as custodian of the holy shrine of the eighth Shiite imam, the largest religious endowment in the country and a hugely important institution for the Islamic Republic. He represents the ultra-conservative, hard-liner “principlists” and is widely believed to have the backing of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
As part of his campaign, Raisi promises his conservative, mostly lower income base a tripling of the monthly cash subsidy payment that Iranians currently receive from the government (approximately $14 at current exchange rate). He also claims he will bring 1.5 million jobs to Iran every year.
In August, Iranian media leaked a recording of the late Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Monatazeri in which he highlights Raisi’s role as one of the four judges who ordered the executions of thousands of political prisoners in 1988 during a state-sponsored campaign that lasted 5 months. Whether or not this news actually affects the opinions of those in his conservative base is unclear, but his campaign has nonetheless been on the defensive since.
Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf: Running for the third time in twelve years, the current Mayor of Tehran is the second best-known Popular Front candidate. Ghalibaf’s close ties to the hardliners in the regime is exemplified by his former role as Iran’s police chief and as senior commander in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRCG), also known as Sepah, the secretive military faction charged with protecting the ideals of the Revolution.
The populist promises every jobless Iranian a 2.5 million rial ($77 at current exchange rate) monthly payment, and vows to create 5 million jobs while more than doubling people’s incomes.
Polls show him gaining traction, particularly following the first Presidential debate last Friday.
Eshaq Jahangiri: Rouhani’s Vice President and a seasoned reformist technocrat. Of all the candidates, Jahangiri is the most reformist and critical of the government system. However, his candidacy is part of a very clever tactic on behalf of the Reformists, led by Mohammad Khatami, to support the moderate President Rouhani. Jahangiri serves as a support system for Rouhani in the debates, helping him defend against the two conservative candidates to leave Rouhani time to speak of his own platform.
Hassan Rouhani: Current President and incumbent centrist/moderate candidate. He is a pragmatist with a cabinet full of experienced technocrats. His hot button issue is bringing economic growth, for which he claims the nuclear deal, or the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), reached during his first term, will prove to be a saving grace. As such, Rouhani supports increasing international dialogue and openness and subsequently trade and foreign investment in Iran, to help bring jobs and infrastructure. He is currently ahead in the polls. While more of a centrist and less a reformer, he believes in freedom of speech and promises greater civil liberties for Iranians.
Since Jahangiri’s candidacy was a strategic move on behalf of the reformists and moderates to help Rouhani, he will almost certainly back out of the race before May 19th.
The conservatives’ strategy is less clear. It was initially thought that Ghalibaf’s candidacy was simply meant to aid Raisi and that he would therefore drop out before the election as well. However, he is performing much better than Raisi in national polls, signaling that he may choose to stay in the race. Whether Raisi would back out in that case is unclear.
Rouhani is the likely winner, given current polls, although this could change depending on the conservative strategy, since Ghalibaf poses a larger threat to Rouhani than Raisi does. While Iranians may believe Rouhani fell short of fulfilling his campaign promises — as unemployment is still high and incomes still low — the President did bring back a sense of relative economic and political stability to the country. Under Ahmadinejad, there was a widespread feeling of uncertainty. Iranians often felt at risk of military attack by Israel and other countries, prices would surge and fall on a daily basis, inflation skyrocketed, sanctions increased in harshness. Whether or not they attribute the change to the President, most Iranians do appreciate the more predictable and less erratic nature of life under Rouhani. This sentiment will likely play a big role in winning Rouhani the election.
What Would FDI Look Like Under the Various Presidencies?
Under a Rouhani presidency, we would likely see a continuation of increasing foreign investment into Iran. Iranian oil production and exports went up during his first term. Former trade partners like India, South Korea resumed their oil imports following the nuclear deal and new partners are in the works. In February, crude oil exports reached 3 million barrels a day for the first time since 1979.
In terms of banking and finance, the Iranian financial system still requires significant reform. Rouhani sought to increase the presence of foreign banks in Iran in order to give potential foreign investors more banking options.
Rouhani may face some pushback from Supreme Leader Khamenei. The Supreme Leader has recently made comments obviously geared towards Rouhani, questioning “some candidates’” tendencies to try to solve the countries problems by looking abroad, implying he’s concerned with Rouhani’s emphasis on foreign trade and foreign investment.
Rouhani’s camp is diplomatic, conflict-averse, and practical. They may not be the reformists many outsiders hope for, but they try to manage and mediate between foreigners and the conservative establishment, which makes Rouhani by far the best candidate for foreign investors or foreign trade partners.
Qalibaf and Raisi:
Neither candidate has made clear whether he would fight against foreign investment or not. But the issue is certainly not as important to them nor as central to their platforms as it is to Rouhani. Qalibaf less of an ideologue and more of a populist than Raisi, so he may therefore be more open to the concept of increasing foreign investment.
These conservative candidates are less devoted to diplomacy and international dialogue than Rouhani. Given the nature of their party, they are more tied to ideology of the Islamic Republic and to protection of the Islamic Republic and may therefore take a stronger stance against Western countries, Israel and the Gulf countries.
By promising to increase cash subsidies to Iranians, the two conservative candidates’ platforms threaten to undo the massive improvement that Rouhani’s camp has made to the inflation rate, which has fallen from 40% to 10% during his presidency. Domestic civil liberties would likely decline under these candidates as well.
Stances Toward Syria and Lebanese Hezbollah
With regards to Iran’s support of Assad in Syria or Hezbollah in Lebanon, the President does not have much say in issues of international military support, involvement or presence. Most of these decisions are made and executed by the Revolution Guard (IRGC), under Khamenei. Raisi, Ghalibaf, and Rouhani all publicly endorse Iran’s support of Hezbollah in Lebanon and of Assad’s regime in Syria, and all three have expressed serious regret when others have questioned the efficacy of Iran’s missions abroad. It is worth noting that no candidate would risk souring its relationship with the IRGC, particularly during a presidential campaign, as it is a hugely influential body in Iran.
Under Rouhani, however, there would more likely be a climate open to critique of Iran’s military involvements. But under any of the conservative candidates, the opportunity to question those policies would likely not exist.
Kimya Zahedi is a Middle East and Conflict Management scholar and international affairs journalist based in New York City. She holds an MA in International Relations from Johns Hopkins SAIS. She Tweets at @kimyazahedi.
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