Free and Fair Elections? The Future of Iran

Iranians will be going to the polls this Friday, May 19, to vote for their president as incumbent Hassan Rouhani seeks to extend his mandate another four years.

While ultimate authority in Iranian government lies with the Supreme Leader and the Revolutionary Guard (IRGC), the president has important power to direct the government the way he sees fit. He can appoint cabinet ministers, issue executive orders (as in the United States), and set the tone in regards to Iran’s interactions with other countries. For example, although Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei is vehemently against negotiations with the United States, Rouhani and his chosen minister of foreign affairs, Javad Zarif, were able to engage in dialogue with the Obama administration.

Iranian elections themselves, however, are not fully democratic. First, all candidates must be thoroughly vetted and approved by Iran’s Guardian Council, an organization whose members are appointed by the Supreme Leader and Parliament. The council attempts to ensure that all candidates adhere to its interpretation of Islam, and it wields significant power: of the 476 people who applied to run for executive office in 2009, only four were approved. This year, the council notably barred former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad from mounting another campaign. This process generally disqualifies anyone whom the Supreme Leader sees as unfit for the presidency, but the government can still influence the outcome of an election through other means. Many claim that Ahmadinejad’s re-election over his reformist challenger Mir-Hussein Mousavi in 2009 was fixed.

The beginning of this week saw two of the six major candidates drop out, meaning that this election may very well be decided without a runoff. Though every Iranian president since 1981 has been re-elected, Rouhani’s re-election is not guaranteed, and thanks in part to inflammatory American rhetoric towards Iran, conservative passions are rising, giving his conservative rival Ebrahim Raisi a reasonable chance to win the presidency.

Elected in 2009, Hassan Rouhani has departed from the hardliner policies of his predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Rouhani’s crowning achievement has been the Iran Deal, which is the result of progressively improving relationships with the US throughout his term. The deal, however, is a double-edged sword. Many Iranians have not yet seen the economic benefits of the nuclear deal and believe that Rouhani may be focusing too much on his international reputation as opposed to policies at home. Rouhani is one of the most reformist clerics in Iran, and though he was a strong supporter of Ruhollah Khomeini and the fundamentals of the Islamic Revolution, he believes that diplomacy and dialogue are the best ways for Iran to solidify its role in the world.

Ebrahim Raisi stands between Rouhani and a second term. Though he is also a cleric, Raisi takes a more traditional hardline stance that harkens back to the Iranian Revolution. Raisi has held many positions in Iran’s judiciary, including head of the General Inspection Office from 1994-2004, deputy chief justice from 2004-14, and attorney general from 2014-16. His justice career, however, has been marred by his role in the 1988 purges of Iranian political prisoners. Ayatollah Khomeini ordered the deaths of between 4,482 and 30,000 dissidents, and Raisi was one of the men tasked with ensuring that the executions were carried out. In 2016, a tape was released in which the more humane Revolutionary leader Hossein-Ali Montazeri had a meeting with Raisi and other executioners, in which Montazeri condemned the executioners, reopening old wounds in the darkest part of the Islamic Republic’s history. The Iranian government refuses to acknowledge the executions and censored the tapes shortly after they were published.

Both candidates are riding a wave of endorsements. Reformist candidate Eshaq Jahangiri recently dropped out of the election to support the incumbent. Further, former president and “father of reforms,” Mohammad Khatami has also endorsed Rouhani. Green movement reformist Mehdi Karroubi, former speaker of the parliament Ali Akbar Nategh-Nouri, and the Supreme Leader’s brother Hadi Khamenei, among others, have all endorsed Rouhani. The support of these reformists, moderates, and popular national figures boosts the campaign and could help carry Rouhani to victory.

Raisi, on the other hand, has support from the more conservative parts of the Iranian government. The second-most supported conservative candidate, Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, dropped out to support Raisi. Though not officially substantiated, many believe that Ayatollah Khamenei is a supporter of Raisi’s candidacy, considering their similar political beliefs. Further, religious organizations such as the Combatant Clergy Association and the Front of Islamic Revolutionary Stability have announced their support for Raisi. And as Raisi is a descendent of the prophet, marked by his black headdress, he could gain support from more religious segments of the Iranian population.  

History says that Rouhani, the incumbent, will win this Friday, but a combination of impatience regarding the benefits of the nuclear deal and increased anti-American sentiment increases Raisi’s chances. A recent poll by the Iranian Students Polling Agency before Ghalibaf and Jahangiri’s leaving the race shows Rouhani with a hefty 42 percent of the vote and Raisi with a little under 27 percent. However, a large chunk of Ghalibaf’s 25 percent will go to Raisi. The other three candidates combined for about 6 percent of the vote. Yet another poll, conducted by International Perspective on Public Opinion, shows that 28 percent of voters are undecided, and there has been no polling released since the massive shakeup in which Jahangiri and Ghalibaf dropped out to endorse Rouhani and Raisi. If neither candidate receives an outright majority in the first round, there will be a runoff soon after. But for now, Rouhani and Raisi only have a few days to woo these undecided voters, and these last few hours of campaigning will determine the future that the Iranian people—and their Supreme Leader—want for their country.

The image featured in this article is licensed under Creative Commons. The original image can be found here.

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