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Different candidates, different roads

The Hindu

The results of Friday’s presidential poll will decide what shape the democratic aspirations of Iranians take

On May 19, Iranians will go to the polls to participate in the twelfth presidential election. Four years after his victory, in 2013, Hassan Rouhani is still considered to be the most serious contender to win this time.

According to a survey by the Iranian Students Polling Agency (ISPA) in early May, Mr. Rouhani maintains his lead in the run-up to the election with 42% of the votes. The ultra-conservative cleric, Ebrahim Raisi, is in second place with 27% of the votes, while the Mayor of Tehran, Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, is in third place with 25%. The others are First Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri at 3%, former Culture Minister Mostafa Mirsalim at 3%, and former Mines and Industries Minister Mostafa Hashemi-Taba at 2%. The survey was conducted after the first two presidential debates, held in April and May. Mr. Ghalibaf has now stepped aside ahead of Friday’s vote “to ensure unity in the pro-revolution front” and thrown his weight behind Mr. Raisi.

This election will be the first since the landmark 2015 nuclear deal between Iran, the United States and five other world powers. If Mr. Rouhani were to win a second term, Iran is likely to continue its course of open dialogue with Asia and Europe while signing new economic agreements with new partners who have been on standby since the rollback of sanctions following the nuclear deal. However, should the conservative candidate Mr. Raisi win, the Islamic Republic of Iran would take a more closed-door diplomacy pathway.

Raps on Rouhani’s knuckles

For the past several months the ultra-conservative camp has been vocal in its criticism of Mr. Rouhani’s agenda, dismissing his economic and political outreach to the West as being naive and dangerous for the ideological future of the Iranian system. Even during the presidential campaign and the televised debates which followed, the Rouhani government was vehemently criticised for its lack of success in tackling high unemployment and growing inequality, together with the reintegration of Iran into global financial platforms. Unsurprisingly, during the presidential campaigns, Iran’s anti-Rouhani camp has taken to populism to work its way into the hearts and minds of the Iranian electorate, dismissing Mr. Rouhani’s technocratic administration, led by the U.S.-educated Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, as being pro-western and anti-revolutionary. Such strong statements and attitudes against the President have led many Iranians to wonder whether the strong arms of the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards will stop Mr. Rouhani from getting re-elected.

Consequently, Mr. Rouhani’s centrist position may ultimately be the best viable option for the future of the Islamic regime, but he needs more than just a consensus among the competing factions to survive another four years. Mr. Rouhani’s popularity has gone down, with 74% of Iranians feeling their living standards have not improved following the nuclear deal two years ago.

Moreover, in the eyes of many young Iranians, Mr. Rouhani’s focus on the long-term economic development of Iran, promises to boost the purchasing power of the Iranian middle class and the reduction of the wealth gap are no longer enough. Though Mr. Rouhani’s Iran has arguably been more open economically and politically, business has been slow and unemployment remains a significant factor. As a result, his success in his political game on the nuclear deal is not necessarily considered the same for the majority of Iranians.

While Iranians view Mr. Rouhani as somewhat unsuccessful, they still consider him to be the most credible within the Iranian political establishment. Taking Mr. Rouhani’s popular recognition into account, one can state that the possibility of his re-election sounds very beneficial for Iran in order to establish more legitimate channels with global powers and to set up friendly ties with countries in the region. Let us not forget that Mr. Rouhani’s pledge in 2013 to end Iran’s international isolation, restore the economy, and open up the country’s civil society has today come up against a new harsh anti-Iran rhetoric emanating from the White House. Obviously, U.S. President Donald Trump’s repeated denunciations of the Iran nuclear deal could add fuel to charges by hard-liners that Mr. Rouhani is too close to the West. Undoubtedly, with Mr. Trump, the Iranian hardliners have tried to capitalise their power while seeking to reunite under one consensus standard-bearer — none other than Ebrahim Raisi.

Hard-line challenger

Largely unknown in politics, Mr. Raisi was deputy prosecutor of Tehran in 1988 at a time when thousands of political prisoners were executed. He was deputy head of the judiciary for 10 years before being appointed in 2014 as Iran’s prosecutor-general. He was later promoted by Ayatollah Khamenei as the custodian of Astan Quds Razavi, a foundation that manages donations to the country’s holiest shrine in the city of Mashhad.

As one of Ayatollah Khamenei’s students, Mr. Raisi is considered to be a part of the Supreme Leader’s trusted circle. Some Iranian politicians believe that presidency is only the first step for Mr. Raisi, who is considered by many conservatives to be the right person to succeed Ayatollah Khamenei as Supreme Leader. That said, despising the West and challenging Mr. Rouhani would not be enough for Mr. Raisi to win the presidential election of May 19. Admittedly, he needs to unify the conservatives against Mr. Rouhani and force a second round. But he also counts on the significant power of Ayatollah Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guards in supporting him in the election process.

Moreover, it appears that one way or another, Ayatollah Khamenei would be eager that Iranians participate in large numbers in the presidential elections. A large voter turnout would ease his concern about the legitimacy of the Iranian regime and its ability to preserve the social and political balance in the face of numerous domestic challenges and regional discord. It was the urgency of this political balance, both domestically and internationally, that provided the raison d’être of Mr. Rouhani’s victory in 2013. It should come as no surprise that if he is not re-elected — not because he will not get enough votes but because the Supreme Leader and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards regard any attempt to change Iranian domestic policy and political behaviours in Iran to be tantamount to ‘sedition’ and against the principles of the Revolution — Iranian politics will fail to escape from a seemingly perpetual ideological deadlock towards a new revolution of values. This will be difficult, but the making of the democratic dream in Iran depends on it more than ever.