Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Hassan Rouhani’s Re-election: Start of a New Power Struggle

Iran- presidential elections in Iran
Supporters of Hassan Rouhani celebrate his victory in the presidential elections, in Tehran, Iran, 20 May 2017. Photo Anadolu Agency

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani was re-elected for a second term on 19 May 2017, winning 23.5 million of 41 million votes in an election with a 73.07 per cent turnout. In the previous presidential election in 2013, turnout was 72.71 per cent and Rouhani received 18.6 million votes. Although in both 2013 and 2017 Rouhani won landslide victories, his share of the votes this time around was significantly higher.

His closest rival, hardliner Ebrahim Raisi, received 15.7 million votes. The other two candidates, Mostafa Hashemitaba and Mustafa Mir-Salim, attracted less than 800,000 votes combined. A few days before the election, two high-profile candidates withdrew from the race. Reformist Ishagh Jahangiri stepped back in favour of Rouhani, and the conservative mayor of Tehran, Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, withdrew and endorsed Raisi.

Several months before the election, the former president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, indicated his interest in running again. However, the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei publicly advised him to avoid the electoral process. Despite this advice, Ahmadinejad and his former vice-president, Hamid Baghai, registered to run. Not surprisingly, The Guardian Council, which wields immense constitutional power, disqualified both men. They were not the only candidates to be disqualified. Between 11-15 April 2017, 1,636 individuals registered to run for president, a significant increase over the 686 candidates in the previous election. Among them were 137 women, who defied the constitutional restrictions by putting their names forward. On 20 April 2017, the final list of candidates was announced and only six candidates passed the Guardian Council’s strict vetting process.

From the outset, it was clear that Rouhani would run for re-election. However, there were uncertainties about the conservative camp and their choice of candidates. On 6 April 2017, Raisi, the current custodian and chairman of Astan Quds Razavi, announced his official nomination for the election. Astan Quds Razavi is a powerful charitable foundation that manages the shrine of Imam Reza, the eighth imam in Shia Islam. The foundation is considered one of the richest in the Middle East, generating billions of dollars annually.

Although Raisi had held several important positions in Iran’s judicial system, he was virtually unknown until the Supreme Leader appointed him as custodian of the country’s most important religious institution in March 2016. Rumours about his political future have circulated ever since. Many people believed that he was being groomed to succeed Ali Khamenei. Following the announcement that Raisi was running for president, it became clear that he would be the main candidate for Iran’s conservative organs. He is a controversial figure, not only because of his hardline views but also for his involvement in the massacre of political prisoners in 1988, one of the darkest episodes in Iran’s history.

Although the Supreme Leader did not officially endorse him, there was a widespread belief that Raisi was his preferred candidate. Since the election of Mohammad Khatami in 1997, a pattern has emerged in Iranian presidential elections. This primarily relates to the ways in which the voters react to the candidates favoured by the Supreme Leader. With the exception of the 2005 election, when Ahmadinejad was elected with the support of the Supreme Leader and there was a lower turnout, any time the Supreme Leader has favoured a presidential candidate, civil society has mobilized against him.

The recent election proved to be one of the most polarizing in the country’s history. Although Rouhani is not traditionally known as a ‘reformist’ politician, he presented a manifesto which, promising moderation, civil society empowerment and economic recovery, was reformist in every sense of the word. As expected, the reformists backed him and the main reformist politicians, including Mohammad Khatami, endorsed him, giving him a significant boost.

Raisi primarily focused on economic issues, linking his policies to ‘the economy of resistance’, a concept that was coined by the Supreme Leader. Raisi employed every tactic to win over the urban poor and rural communities, making promises, such as increased subsidies, which Rouhani labelled unrealistic. Examining the election results by demographic subgroup, it is clear that Raisi failed to attract his target voters.

As was expected, Rouhani successfully captured the youth vote. In fact, 70.3 per cent of voters aged between 18 and 45 voted for him. It is imperative to note that 77.6 per cent of voters who were 45 and older also voted for Rouhani. Over the last two decades, there has been an assumption that the moderate and reformist candidates primarily attract educated voters. In this election, 78.2 per cent of people with a higher education voted for Rouhani, but 69.3 per cent of those with a high school education or less voted for him as well.

The urban-rural binary was also challenged. The assumption has been that rural communities are more conservative and so will naturally vote for conservative candidates. Although 73.3 per cent of the urban population voted for Rouhani, he managed to attract 67.3 per cent of the rural vote too – a significant percentage. Furthermore, the election challenged economic and social dualities. Some 78.9 per cent of people considered low income voted for Rouhani, which was even higher than the 72.2 per cent of the high-income voters who voted for him. Based on these results, it would seem that assumptions that made sense until a decade ago are no longer valid.

Clearly, Rouhani effectively managed to mobilize various social groups, which paved the way for his landslide victory. But can he truly implement his election manifesto? It is likely that, much like the Reform Era under President Khatami, the unelected organs of the Islamic Republic will challenge the government. The Supreme Leader is the most powerful person in Iran’s political system, and many powerful institutions such as the judiciary, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), Basij militia and the wider security apparatus are under his command.

Iran has a democratic government within an undemocratic regime. The unelected factions of the deep state wield considerable influence. Having said that, personality is very important in the Iranian political system. Rouhani spent a considerable part of his career in the regime’s security sector and is not afraid of confrontation. In his first term as president, he proved to be far bolder than Khatami, standing up to both the Supreme Leader and the IRGC on a number of issues. Despite his popularity and historic mandate, Khatami was reluctant to confront the deep state and the unelected segments of the regime made the everyday running of the government extremely difficult for him.

Some observers believe Rouhani will use his broad electoral support to push for a new balance of power. He can also bank on both legislative and executive backing in parliament. That being said, it will be difficult for him to challenge the structures of power in a radical way. Less than a week after the election, he had already clashed with the Supreme Leader and other unelected bodies. For example, he promised to improve relations with Iran’s neighbours, particularly members of the Gulf Cooperation Council. Yet even as he was talking about dialogue and understanding, the Supreme Leader stated that the Saudis are “cows being milked” by the United States, publically undermining the president’s authority.

Foreign policy will not be the only area of contention; there are many other disagreements over political, economic and cultural issues. Hence, over the next four years, we are likely to see a new power struggle between Iran’s various factions. The result of this power struggle, which has gained a new momentum since the election, will influence the socio-political landscape of the Islamic Republic for years to come.

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