By Selim Celal
With only a month left to the presidential election, the conservatives in Iran are still struggling to designate an appropriate candidate. Reports indicate serious disunity among them.
Like the previous presidential election, it seems there will be more than one conservative candidate this time as well. On the other hand, despite widespread rumors that the reformists might have their own candidate rather than supporting the semi-conservative (moderate) Hassan Rouhani, recent developments show that the reformists would eventually stand behind the current president.
However, despite the unity between the moderate and reformist camps on the one hand, and the fragmentation of the conservative camp on the on other, a clean sweep for President Rouhani is not guaranteed because he is facing a serious challenge, which is what the conservatives are also counting on.
What is that challenge and in what way could it influence the election’s outcome? To have a clear understanding of this challenge, one has to recall the socio-economic and political situation of the country in the months leading up to the 2013 presidential election and compare it to that of today.
In 2013, the economy was down; the nuclear issue was in a state of deadlock; the Iranians had a bad image in the world; several journalists, political and civil activists, and green movement sympathizers were behind the bars; and ethno-religious minorities were severely discriminated against.
In this situation, Rouhani came on the scene with a smiling and charming posture. Already known as “Sheikh Diplomat” (given his one-time position as Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator), Rouhani chose the key as the symbol of his election campaign, dubbing it the “Master Key of Wisdom”.
He claimed that his master key would solve all the problems highlighted earlier. He succeeded in convincing the reformists that he could be a jack of all trades as well as a good match for the conservative candidate. This is how he won the 2013 presidential race.
However, no significant change has taken place in the last four years. To the political activists, the measure of a genuine political opening was the release of the two main leaders of the Green Movement, Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mahdi Karroubi. Along with failing to secure their unconditional release, Rouhani has failed to persuade the establishment to give them a trial, even a symbolic one.
The image of Iranians has worsened further due to the Islamic republic’s involvement in Syria. One of the specific promises Rouhani made in one of his pre-election speeches in 2013 was that he would bring respect to the Iranian passport.
To his misfortune, the invalidity of the Iranian passport made headlines in the last couple of months following U.S. President Donald Trump’s travel ban.
Additionally, despite Rouhani’s promise to ethno-religious minorities to address their grievances and give them a fair share of power, in practice, this amounted merely to the appointment of a Shia Persian clergyman with a background in security (a former intelligence minister) as an advisor to the president on ethno-religious minority affairs.
On the nuclear front, Rouhani pulled off a deal with the international community. The Iranians were expecting to see the fruits of this deal in economic terms as soon as it was signed.
Although Rouhani is trying to prove through statistics and economic verbiage that the national economy is improving, ordinary citizens are not happy with the economic performance in the post-nuclear-deal period, and the popular perception is that the deal has not brought any tangible positive change in people’s lives.
Several factors have contributed to the popularity of this perception. Of these, the following are particularly noteworthy:
First, during the nuclear negotiations, Rouhani needed popular support to resist pressure from the groups opposed to the nuclear deal. As a result, whether intentionally or unintentionally, he created an air of great anticipation.
Second, Rouhani did not dare to disclose to the public that a major portion of the economic problems actually had nothing to do with international sanctions but are rather structural ones with roots in Iran’s rentier economy. Thus, their solution lies beyond the likely returns of a nuclear deal.
Third, he did not publicly make a clear distinction between the nuclear-related sanctions and the general ones. In reality, the post-nuclear-deal sanction-relief program applied only to the sanctions related to nuclear proliferation, whereas most other sanctions remain in force.
Finally, throughout Rouhani’s tenure, the ailing economy of Iran kept on funding two wars of attrition in Syria and Yemen. While in recent months Rouhani has been trying to justify his low political and economic performance, the fact is that -- in politics -- justification is just another name for admitting to guilt.
There is no room for justification in politics. Politicians either fail or succeed.
That said, the key challenge for Rouhani is to convince his voters to give him another chance by disrupting their weekend rest and queuing up at the voting stations.
He can hope to win if the election turnout proves high. A low turnout will definitely work against him. In other words, Rouhani’s victory depends to a great extent on his ability to sway people to go to the polls.
In this regard, a former reformist president, Muhammad Khatami, is a good example. He won the 1997 presidential election with 20 million votes. In his reelection bid in 2001, he was able to garner 21 million votes, so he not only maintained his electoral base but also enhanced it.
However, the reformist candidate failed to draw people to the voting stations in the 2005 presidential election, thereby losing the race to the conservative candidate, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
There are already a number of indications about Rouhani’s inability to mobilize voters. For instance, last February, he paid an official visit to Sistan and Baluchistan, a Sunni-majority province, where he had garnered 73 percent of the provincial vote in 2013 polls.
Despite repeated calls from local Sunni religious leaders, only around 6,000 people reportedly showed up to welcome the president.
The conservatives are very optimistic that the bad economy and issues related to it, such as the scandal over astronomical salaries for certain government employees, will encourage the people to stay home rather than taking the trouble to queue up at the voting stations.
Workers stage regular strikes and there are anti-government protests in different parts of the country over delayed salaries and other kinds of economic hardship.
In a country where demonstrations are usually dealt with with an iron fist, these protests are being tolerated, which signifies that the establishment does not mind contributing to the image that the Rouhani government has failed to deliver on its socio-economic promises.
To Rouhani’s list of disadvantages one should add the absence of Hashemi Rafsanjani, who had played a key role in brokering a deal between Iran’s moderate and reformist forces, thereby securing more votes for Rouhani in the 2013 elections.
If Rouhani fails to bring the people to the voting stations, the election will be decided in a run-off vote, an ideal situation for the conservative camp.
A run-off election would help the conservatives in two ways: On one hand, it would undermine Rouhani’s confidence, while also boosting the morale of the conservative camp. This would be a great success in its own right for the conservatives, who are suffering from a lack of popular legitimacy.
In a run-off election, the conservatives would also have a chance to unite their voters behind a single candidate and compete neck-to-neck with Rouhani.
To be more specific, the conservatives expect a situation similar to what happened in the 2005 election. In that election, Ahmadinejad won fewer votes (by over five million) than the late Rafsanjani. But in the run-off election, Ahmadinejad won with 17 million votes, leaving Rafsanjani 10 million votes behind.
It should also be kept in mind that Rouhani is also convinced that he will lead the polls by a wide margin.
A likely close call would tempt the establishment to engage in some “electoral engineering” in favor of the conservative candidate.
Last but not least, in the Iranian elections there is a significant number of what are called “negative voters”. These do not vote for a candidate out of love or sympathy, but simply to prevent the other candidate from winning.
Rouhani is counting on this category of voters. He has become particularly hopeful about this unmotivated portion of the electorate since the emergence of Ibrahim Raeesi as the principal nominee of the conservative camp.
These negative voters are expected to mobilize against Raeesi. That is because in some political circles Raeesi is called “Ayatollah Slaughterer” given his previous position as a member of a committee (popularly known as the “death committee”) that ordered the mass execution of thousands of political opponents in the 1980s.
Pre-election developments in Iran highlight a seldom discussed dimension of electoral politics in third-world countries, including Iran.
Ideally, parties and candidates should capitalize on their abilities and strengths during the election. However, Iran’s 2017 presidential election is a good case in point, where the parties involved are counting on the weaknesses and inabilities of their rivals rather than their own strengths and capabilities.
*Opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Anadolu Agency