Iran presidential elections: No easy victory for Rouhani

For years, elections in Iran have been likened to a furnace that everyone must feed to fire up public participation. But the temperature is not always controllable.

By Ali Reza Eshraghi

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. (World Economic Forum)
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. (World Economic Forum)

Iran’s presidential elections have never been without drama. This year, the Guardian Council—a group tasked to approve candidates—set a new record for the number of disqualifications. Of the 1,636 individuals who registered, it approved only six.

However, instead of being outraged over the Guardian Council’s nebulous and undemocratic process, everyone, including the Reformists, is frustrated about the ease with which anyone in Iran can register to run for president. For instance, among those who registered this year was the infamous former president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

The Iranian public and polity endured five days of fear at the possibility of Ahmadinejad’s political resurrection, until the Guardian Council unanimously decided to disqualify him and all his associates from running. This was not an easy decision. Ahmad Jannati, the 91-year-old head of the Guardian Council, was one of Ahmadinejad’s staunchest supporters and had even once described him as “the honor of the country and Islam.” But Jannati decided to protect the regime from the problems that a rogue Ahmadinejad could cause. No one is upset over Ahmadinejad’s disqualification. Even the Reformists, who on principle oppose the Guardian Council, were relieved. Having lost favor, Ahmadinejad has become a ronin of Iranian politics, a political operator without an important backer. But his story is not over yet, and we can expect another dramatic comeback from him in the future.

The regime appears to want to quietly alleviate the trauma caused by the Ahmadinejad presidency and the political repression that followed his disputed 2009 election. Ahmadinejad and his team were not the only ones who were disqualified. The Council rejected a few other hardliners. For now, provocateurs are not welcome on the political stage. Many of the figures who were loudly involved during the 2009 wave of repression have now been marginalized, and there is rarely any mention of them in the news.

However, another victory for President Hassan Rouhani, who the Reformists and even a group of moderate Principlists still endorse, is not certain and won’t be easy. His administration coordinated with other branches of government to hold the election earlier than usual, meaning that there will be less time to campaign. With less than a month left until Election Day, one can detect a social inertia. There is very little time to package a message and form election platforms. A challenge that Reformists and moderates have faced since 2005 has been to convince the urban middle-class base to come to the polls. If in 2013 these citizens were uncertain about voting—due to the 2009 repression of the Green Movement—now they’ve become politically exhausted. Even if they go to the polls they lack enthusiasm to encourage other people to do so.

Tangible Change

This mass apathy has baffled the government and analysts. In an effort to increase voter participation, Rouhani’s supporters have created a “tangible change” hashtag on social media to show how much conditions have improved since the Ahmadinejad administration. Rouhani has fulfilled his most important campaign promise of resolving the nuclear issue through negotiations. The inflation rate is down to a single digit, and Iran’s GDP annual growth rate has reached seven percent, compared to the minus two percent at the end of Ahmadinejad’s presidency. The price of staples has been relatively stable over the past four years. As a Twitter user pointed out, although a pack of Winston cigarettes went from 500 tomans at the beginning of the Ahmadinejad presidency to 5,000 tomans by the time he left, under Rouhani, its price has remained unchanged. Medicine is once again available and affordable. Universal health care has gone into effect, and now even housewives can obtain coverage. NGOs are operating again, students are free to organize events at universities, and the censorship of books and other cultural and artistic productions has decreased. And yet people are still dissatisfied with the economic situation, and intellectuals consider social and political improvements insufficient.

Rouhani’s campaign strategy has so far been to win over voters by bombarding them with statistics and reminding them of the conditions from four years ago. But no matter how dazzling the numbers are, they still are not as captivating and motivating as his previous slogan to “open locks.” This was a smart message that resonated with voters and went viral. But this year, Rouhani’s campaign has not yet to come up with a compelling platform.

The opposition is well aware of the challenges that the current administration faces. Therefore, their primary goal is to prevent Rouhani from winning more than 50 percent of the vote in order to trigger a runoff election. Rouhani faces two main competitors. Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, the mayor of Tehran who lost to Rouhani in the previous election, is the ideal technocratic candidate according to the Principlists. The other is Ebrahim Raeesi, whom the Supreme Leader appointed a year ago as the custodian and chairman of the Astan Quds Razavi Foundation, one of the richest conglomerates in Iran and the biggest endowment institutions in the Muslim world.

As per traditional Iranian political courtship, before announcing his candidacy Raeesi played hard-to-get and even said he “prefers to smell a beautiful flower” instead of holding a position of power. It was a romantic gesture from a person who has held highly sensitive judicial and prosecutorial positions since the age of 20 and who is one of the main figures responsible for the mass execution of thousands of political prisoners in the summer of 1988. Reformists are itching to use this history against Raeesi in the election, but they are caught in a Catch-22, as another name associated with the mass executions is Mostafa Pour-Mohammadi, Rouhani’s minister of justice.

Jostling within Rouhani’s Opposition

As usual, there are guessing games about who the Supreme Leader’s favored candidate will be. So far in the eyes of pundits Raeesi has won the cup, in spite of Ghalibaf’s better chance of winning. Now that their candidates have been disqualified, hardliners who don’t want the normalization of domestic or foreign politics will also endorse Raeesi. To date, Raeesi has been cautious in his remarks, and unlike Qalibaf, has refrained from aggressively confronting Rouhani. But he needs the hardliners’ votes, so it won’t be a surprise if he intensifies his rhetoric to appease this constituency. Over the past few days, Raeesi has been negotiating with former officials in Ahmadinejad’s administration to help run his campaign.

As in the previous election, Principlists have been talking about collectively throwing their weight behind one candidate: Ghalibaf or Raeesi. Past experiences have shown that when election fever runs high and campaigning to win public opinion intensifies, Principlists tend to lose sight of their goal and start attacking one another. An alliance may not even be in their best interest. The total vote that the final Principlist candidate receives may not necessarily be the sum of votes each of them would have had individually, which will reduce the chances of the election going to a second round.

A shorter campaign period means fewer stump speeches and election rallies: less face-to-face and more mediated interaction. Changes in online behavior in Iran have been rapid over the past four years. Facebook has lost its standing. Telegram, which is not filtered, is now the most popular platform, but there is not much user engagement. The flow of messages in Telegram channels is one-sided, and therefore there is less opportunity for discussion. In the previous elections, Reformists held public forums in different circles of Tehran. But today, they use Instagram Live. The increased use of infographics also sets this election apart from previous ones. The mode of public deliberation is changing, and society is quickly becoming accustomed to receiving only fast, simple, and small bits of information.

But live presidential debates are still the premier method of engaging the public. The debates, first held in 2009, are now just as significant as the election itself. Winning the debate has become so important that, in an unprecedented move, Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri has decided to also run for president, not as a rival, but as Rouhani’s debate teammate. For two months, State TV has been preparing a special studio for three rounds of debates. But last week, a five-member commission that regulates election campaigns suddenly decided that the debates should be pre-recorded instead of aired live. This decision was met with fierce opposition from all candidates and political factions, including the hardliners. The severity of public backlash forced the commission to reverse its decision within 48 hours.

For years, the election in Iran has been likened to a furnace that everyone must feed to fire public participation. But the temperature is not always controllable. Even the most conservative candidates take unexpected measures and utter words that would normally be in the breach of the regime’s guidelines in an effort to connect with the voters. This election will definitely have its own surprises.

Ali Reza Eshraghi is the Iran Project Manager at the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) and a teaching fellow in the Department of Communication Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He was a senior editor at several of Iran’s reformist dailies. This article was first published on