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Election intrigue in Iran

Expert: “The socioeconomic situation in the country is Rouhani’s Achilles heel in the current presidential race”
18 May, 2017 - 15:54
Photo by Reuters

Rivalry is more and more intensifying in the Islamic Republic of Iran on the eve of the presidential elections to be held on May 19. The proof of this is the second TV debate on culture and foreign policy past Friday, when candidates for the topmost public office exchanged sharp criticisms. The Guardian Council of the Constitution has approved all the six candidates to run for the presidency.

The incumbent President Hassan Rouhani, who is running for a second term, is considered the favorite of this race. He won a landslide victory in the 2013 elections on a promise to reduce Iran’s international isolation which impairs the country’s economy.

His rivals are former Attorney General Ebrahim Raisi, Tehran Mayor Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, First Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri, former Minister of Culture Mostafa Agha Mir-Salim, and ex-Minister of Heavy Industries Mostafa Hashemitaba.

Rouhani has accused Raisi, widely regarded as a protege of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, of abusing religion. “Mr. Raisi, you can slander me as much you wish. As a judge of the clerical court, you can even issue an arrest order. But please don’t abuse religion for power,” he said.

Rouhani also cast his other rival, Teheran Mayor Bagher Ghalibaf, a former police chief, as a thug who had boasted of personally taking on young demonstrators and wanting to beat up students.

In reply, his opponents hammered Rouhani’s record on the economy, arguing that jobs have been lost and prices have risen despite the agreement to lift Western sanctions in return for curbing Iran’s nuclear program.

Although many observers consider Rouhani a reformer, he, as president, has largely shown himself as a moderate pragmatist who cooperates with the establishment.

The Day requested Serhii BURDYLIAK, Ukraine’s Ambassador to the Islamic Republic of Iran, to comment on presidential election options and explain why there is such keen rivalry for the office of head of state.

“The president is the highest elective official in Iran, the head of the executive branch, and the second in the hierarchy of power after the supreme leader (the Rahbar). The president performs representative functions (such as acceptance of credentials from foreign ambassadors) as well as those of prime minister.

“At the same time, Iran’s system of government is particular in that nobody, even the supreme leader, wields absolute power. There is constant rivalry between the branches and centers of power, various governmental institutions and pressure groups, such as the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the Basij volunteer militia, etc.

“In spite of such a complicate nature of relations, decisions on the most important foreign and domestic policy matters are made collectively, i.e., by coordinating the positions of various pressure groups and centers. Yet the ultimate word always belongs to the Rahbar.

“What you call ‘keen rivalry’ shows the struggle of two camps – reformers and conservatives – in Iranian politics, although this division is not exactly correct. At the same time, the heated polemics of candidates on TV and in the press essentially differ from what is going on in the streets of Iranian cities and villages. The current election campaign is unfolding in a relatively calm sociopolitical situation, when tough security measures were taken to avert the danger of terrorist attacks, mass-scale disturbances, and provocations.”

Can Rouhani really win the first round?

“According to public opinion polls, the present incumbent is really the favorite. For example, the reformer-minded information and analysis website entekhab.ir says that the Rouhani-Jahangiri pair is supported by 77, Raisi by 6.8, and Ghalibaf by 5.4 percent of the respondents.

IPPO Group informs that support for Raisi and Rouhani grew from 11 to 20 percent and from 51 to 58 percent, respectively, in the period of May 7 to 10. At the same time, Ghalibaf’s rating dropped from 24 to 20 percent.

“The survey conducted by Iran’s official news agency IRNA shows that 63.9 percent of Iranians are ready to come to the polling stations. About 20 percent of the respondents remain undecided, 29.6 percent will vote for reformers, 23.4 percent for conservatives, and 15.4 percent will support moderate candidates. A total of 54 percent of the respondents have already made their choice.

“But what really matters is not only ratings, but also the disposition of candidates on the presidential elections’ home stretch.

“At present, the most probable winners are running in tandem: Hassan Rouhani and his deputy, First Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri, – on the reformers’ side, Seyyed Ebrahim Raisi, custodian of the Imam Reza Shrine, and Tehran Mayor Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf – on the conservatives’ side. The first numbers in the tandems are Rouhani and Raisi, respectively.

“Experts predict that the Nos. 2 will withdraw their candidatures in favor of the leading partner. However, Jahangiri ruled out this scenario the other day. Ghalibaf also intends to seek victory.

“This enhances the election intrigue, for the participation of the four in the voting increases the likelihood of a runoff (the candidate who gains 50 percent + 1 vote wins). In all probability, decisions on withdrawing candidatures will be made on the very eve of the elections, with due account of the current situation.”


What changes should we expect after these elections and what conclusions should Ukraine draw right now?

“The victory of the current president of Iran will in fact mean continuation of Iran’s present-day foreign and domestic political course, preservation of the status quo in the relations with most countries, and continuation of the policy of Iran’s regional leadership. At the same time, the president will be free to maneuver in the social field – in particular, he may increase subsidies, social program funding, etc.

“For, in spite of some positive changes in the Iranian economy, the socioeconomic situation in Iran during the Rouhani presidency has remained difficult. Although Iran’s main macroeconomic performances have improved owing to the easing of international sanctions, the living standards of the populace have tended to worsen. The socioeconomic situation in the country is the ‘Achilles heel’ of Rouhani in the current elections, which his opponents are actively taking advantage of.

“The victory of Raisi will mean movement towards a socially-oriented economy, increased paternalism, a more active and expansive policy of Iran in the region and the Islamic world, emphasis on the advancement of Islamic values, etc. Although this may intensify anti-Western rhetoric to some extent, we should not expect any radical revision of the Islamic Republic’s foreign-policy course. At the same time, a radical reshuffle in the government and a reversal of priorities may as well bring about a revision of bilateral relations with a number of countries.

“The analysis of the candidates’ election programs shows that, irrespective of the voting results, we should not expect revolutionary changes in Iran’s foreign policy. What may see certain modifications is, above all, domestic social, economic, and financial policy, the sphere of human rights and freedoms, etc.

“For example, the May 5 debates showed that the candidates had no clear ideological differences – they only differed in a bigger or lesser inclination to populism and isolationism or, on the contrary, to the openness of the world. All the candidates were unanimous in only one question – the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), a nuclear deal signed in June 2015 by Iran, Germany, China, Russia, the US, the UK, France, and the EU. None of them pledged to denounce the JCPOA in case he will win, although Rouhani’s rivals criticize the government because the nuclear deal is of no tangible benefit to Iran.

“We expect the Iranian elections to be held in an atmosphere of transparency and healthy competition.

“Ukraine hopes that mutually-advantageous cooperation with Iran will continue and is prepared to collaborate with any legitimately elected government of that country.”

By Mykola SIRUK, The Day