By Anton Rosén
On the 19th of May Iranians will head to the polls to choose their next president. Former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a hardline conservative, has been banned from this year’s election by the Guardian Council, 12-man ensemble of sharia law experts and civil jurists in charge of the vetting process each potential candidate has to go through before they’re allowed to run. The Guardian Council is in turn de facto controlled by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei which is the true locus of power in Iran. Although many initially doubted it, current president Hassan Rouhani made it through the vetting process and now face tough opposition from foremost two prominent figures within the conservative camp. One is Ebrahim Raisi, a close ally to the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, the other one is the Tehran Mayor Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf. So who are these candidates in more detail?
Rouhani was elected for his first term in office back in 2013. He then ran on a platform which emphasized more personal freedom and to improve relations with the West – which he argued would lead to prosperity. He presided the Iran nuclear deal which curbed Iran’s nuclear energy program in return for lifted sanctions. Since the agreement, Iran has nearly doubled its oil export and signed multi-billion-dollar aircraft deals with Boeing and Airbus. However, Rouhani might have bit off more than he could chew when he formulated the agreement as a quick-fix for the country’s economy. Although Rouhani reduced the inflation and unemployment when he initially took over the numbers have started to rise, once again. A poll conducted by IranPoll in April this year showed that 52% of the respondents considered the economy as deteriorating.This indicates that the isolation wasn’t the only cause troubling the country’s economy, it also shows structural problems. As Rouhani has sought to tackle these problems through liberalizations, integrating Iran more into a globalized economy, he has come to face ideological critique from the conservative camp. They view his method as a sellout of revolutionary ideals, meaning that Iran is becoming the next China, giving up on ideals such as self-reliance and anti-imperialistic principles in return for commerce.
One candidate that certainly didn’t have any trouble getting through the Guardian Council was Ebrahim Raisi. Raisi is one of the candidates put forward by the conservative umbrella organization JAMNA. He has worked his way up in the political ranks, serving within the sharia courts – being one of four judges responsible for the mass executions of leftists and dissidents in 1988. He later became prosecuting general and by 2016 he was appointed custodian of Astan Quds Razavi, a charity organization bolstering massive economic resources that oversees the holiest site in Shiite Islam. This effectively made him one of the most powerful men in Iran – proving his close connections to the Supreme Leader. However, Raisi still remains relatively unknown to a lot of people in Iran according to IranPoll. He has also reported problems with fundings for his campaign – which may be a real problem or a strategic statement in order to profile himself as a man of the people. His involvement in the 1988 mass executions is also something that might hurt his candidacy – alienating him from younger, more modern voters in the larger cities.
Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf
Whereas Rouhani and Raisi come from clerical backgrounds, Qalibaf comes from the military. He is the second candidate put forward by JAMNA that made it through the Guardian Council after Raisi. He is a veteran from the Iran-Iraqi war in the 80’s, he has both served as Iran’s chief of police and as a commander of the Revolutionary Air Force, and he is currently the mayor of Tehran. He is considered a popular mayor, using part private money to build highways, metro stations and restore formerly neglected neighbourhoods. This gives him a strong base of voters in the multimillion city. His candidacy might however be marred by the Plasco building, a historic high-rise in downtown Tehran, catching fire in January this year. The building collapsed and killed 26 people, including 16 firefighters. Corruption and mismanagement accusations has been brought against him by reformist profiled news outlets following the tragic accident, calling for his resignation. His military background and close connections to high ranking military officers might however give him a leverage. The military has intervened in elections before. As in 2009 when they supported Ahmadinejad’s re-election, holding rallies and opening campaign offices, to his favor. It is not clear whether the military prefers Raisi or Qalibaf in this year’s election but they do traditionally support conservative candidates.
So… Who will win?
As this year’s election approaches it is hard to predict a clear winner but most analysts places their bet on Rouhani. Even though he promised to much in 2013 he’s still the candidate with highest favorability. This year’s election could be considered a referendum about the economic reform-program, with social policies falling behind in importance. If Rouhani should lose this does not mean that the nuclear deal itself is in direct danger, only the methods Rouhani has sought to prosper from it. If Raisi or Qalibaf win we could expect economic policies to take a more populistic shape, such as extended cash handout and less liberalizations. Foreign policy would be more stable if Rouhani won since the conservative camp is known to antagonize the West and especially the U.S, exemplified by Ahmadinejad, and with Trump residing in the white house things could take an unexpected turn.
By Anton Rosén