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Reading the Iranian elections
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 25 - 05 - 2017

Iran just concluded a major electoral season last week amidst a climate that, at the very least, can be described as complicated and fast paced. The season opened with a record number of presidential hopefuls who registered to run. Over 1,630 candidates were whittled down to six by the Guardian Council of the Constitution, the body responsible for screening applicants to ascertain their credentials and eligibility. The application/screening process occasioned some controversy when former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad filed to run, defying the expressed wishes of the supreme leader, even though he would subsequently be eliminated by the Guardian Council. The campaigns themselves were marked by particularly heated debates between the candidates and acrimonious exchanges of accusations. Then, in the final week before polling day, two of the six candidates withdrew reducing the competitors to only four.
Eventually, at the end of this gruelling race, the incumbent, Hassan Rouhani, succeeded in coming out ahead of his rivals with 57 per cent of the vote, putting paid to the prevalent prediction that there would have to be a second round between him and runner-up Seyed Ibrahim Raisos-Sadati (commonly known as Ibrahim Raisi). In keeping with many analysts' predictions there was a high voter turnout, exceeding 70 per cent of registered voters.
Strong competition: The four candidates who were left when Iranians went to the polls for the Iranian Republic's 12th presidential elections were: Rouhani, Custodian of Astan Quds Razavi Ibrahim Raisi, former minister of culture Mostafa Mir-Salim and former minister of heavy industries Mostafa Hashemitaba. The two who withdrew were Mayor of Tehran Mohamed Bagher Ghalibaf in favour of Raisi and Hassan Rouhani's vice president Ishaq Jahangiri, in favour of Rouhani.
The polls handed Rouhani more than a sufficient majority to win the elections in the first round: 57 per cent of the vote or 23,549,616 votes. His closest competitor, Raisi, finished at 39 per cent of the vote (15,786,449 votes, or about seven million votes behind Rouhani). Mir-Salim and Hashemitaba finished with 478,215 and 215,450 votes, respectively.
Voter turnout was high, with 41,220,331 out of a total of 56.5 million eligible voters casting their ballots in 63,429 polling stations which contained more than 130,000 ballot boxes, supervised by 1.5 million polling officials. Iranians abroad were able to vote in 134 polling centres located in 103 countries. Some 300,000 security personnel from the Ministry of Interior were detailed to ensure the security of the polls which, together with the supreme leader's appeals to the Iranian public to report to the polls in large numbers, reflects the considerable importance that Iranian authorities attach to the electoral process. The high voter turnout, regardless of which candidate that voters supported, is seen as an affirmation of the legitimacy of the Iranian regime.
Ramifications of Rouhani's victory: Rouhani's victory by a comfortable lead over his closest and most important competitor, Raisi, is likely to have a number of effects.
Firstly, Rouhani's victory despite stiff competition from Raisi should bolster the reformist-moderate camp and strengthen its hand in the political process in the forthcoming period. This is all the more the case in view of the “Hope” movement's gains in the last legislative elections. This coalition of moderate and reformist parties succeeded in obtaining all of the Tehran province's 30 parliamentary seats in the February 2016 legislative polls which, in combination with the resolve of its members, enabled it to sustain its impetus and achieve further gains. It should be added that these inroads were accomplished after many years of boycotting the political process.
The advances of the moderate-reformist coalition acquire further significance in light of the support that the conservatives' candidate Raisi received from influential segments of the Iranian regime, most notably the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps and the Basij Resistance Force, which openly declared its support for him. It is also well known that Raisi is close to the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei to the extent that a number of observers dubbed him the “Supreme Leader's candidate.”
In spite of the stronger position of the moderate-reformist camp and the advances it is theoretically expected to make in obstructing the isolationist and confrontationist project of the conservative-hardliner camp, which espouses a populist discourse hostile to the world and neighbouring countries, Rouhani, in his second term, will undoubtedly encounter stiff resistance on the part of conservatives and hardliners who will do their utmost to block further advances of the reformist camp in future parliamentary and presidential elections. It should be borne in mind that the conservatives and hardliners still control the most important state agencies that have the greatest influence on decision-making processes. Indeed, these agencies succeeded in tying Rouhani's hands on many issues, thereby being able to portray him to the public as weak and incapable of fulfilling the electoral pledges he made when running for his first term in office.
Secondly, the Rouhani victory and the gains won by reformists-moderates should increase their prospects to participate in the selection of the successor to the current supreme leader whose advanced age and ailing health make it likely that this process takes place fairly soon. In fact, Rouhani, himself, will be among the members involved with the selection of candidates to succeed Khamenei in the event of his death of removal from his post due to his inability to perform his duties. A three-member committee consisting of the head of the judiciary, the president and a member of the Assembly of Experts is studying possible candidates one of whom is the runner up in the last presidential elections, Raisi. Observers believe that another reason Raisi was nominated for the presidency was to enhance his prospects in the competition for the post of supreme leader. Certainly, the campaigns enabled the Iranian public to familiarise themselves with Raisi who, at 56, is relatively young compared to his potential rivals for that post, a factor that could, in theory, enable the conservatives to hold on to the post of supreme leader for many years to come.
Thirdly, at the foreign policy level, as Iran became increasingly involved in regional issues and crises during Rouhani's first term, and in Yemen and Syria above all, leading to direct clashes between Tehran and neighbouring countries, and Riyadh in particular, the prospects of a significant change in Iranian foreign policy have dwindled. In all events, the president has relatively limited influence on foreign policy design which is one of the chief authorities of the supreme leader who has jealously guarded his jurisdiction in this domain. Rouhani's task, therefore, is essentially to carry out foreign policy plans without altering or undermining their general designs and aims.
Nevertheless, with Rouhani's victory we can anticipate more flexible sounding political rhetoric addressed to the world, especially in view of a public opinion trend towards a more moderate and rational discourse and away from the populist, xenophobic and insular discourse of the hardliners.
Fourthly, in spite of Rouhani's failure to meet his first term's campaign promises concerning civil liberties, this question was of great concern to a large segment of the electorate which felt that if Rouhani lost, Iran would be dragged “backwards”. A large portion of Iranian youth, in particular, reflected this sentiment with such slogans as “No return.” Moreover, there is a good likelihood that Rouhani, during his second term, will be able to benefit from a strong moderate-reformist parliamentary bloc to push through some legislation providing for greater freedom of expression and freer internet use. However, the existence of a more favourable parliamentary composition does not eliminate a number of difficulties that Rouhani will encounter in this endeavour. The hardliners still control many other government institutions that are also concerned with the question of rights and liberties, most notably the judiciary, which is extremely antagonistic to all attempts to relax restrictions on public freedoms.
Lastly, the economy was one of the most important determinants of voting behaviour in the presidential elections. Voters, as a whole, tended to rally around the candidates they believed would work to fulfil pledges to improve the state of the economy and they tended to shy away from populist ultranationalistic rhetoric that calls on the people to bear the economic strains so that Iran can continue to stand firm against outside pressures. Rouhani's campaign emphasised the economic question and he rested his many pledges in this regard on the nuclear deal signed with Western powers that opened the Iranian economy to foreign investment. In light of the prospects of increased revenues, he pledged, for example, to introduce a number of economic reforms so as to reduce inflation and to foot the bill for financial aid packages to the needy.
In sum, it appears that the politically moderate Rouhani's electoral victory promises some change in the Iranian political system and Tehran's domestic and foreign policies. However, it is important to bear in mind that the boundaries between the two sides of the Iranian political equations — the conservative and the reformist camps — generally vanish when it comes to questions connected with the broader outlines of the national interest. Also, given that the supreme leader ultimately controls the country through his sovereign authorities and through his network of allegiances and vested interests that are difficult to circumvent, we can rule out any dramatic change in the Iranian system of government and its policies during Rouhani's second term. Still, in the best of circumstances, his victory could pave the way for gradual change if the moderates-reformists manage to safeguard and build on their gains.

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