The Campaign Begins

Programming note: I’m going to try to focus a bit more on the Iranian election campaign in the coming weeks. I’ve noticed that this is an area that is undercovered by most media outlets, either due to a lack of interest or a sense of dismissal as to their relevance. Those with only a passing knowledge of Middle East politics may be forgiven for thinking that an election in the region doesn’t matter, but that is not the case here. The President of Iran is much more than just a figurehead or a rubber stamp for decisions made by the Supreme Leader. He (it’s always a he) plays an important role in crafting policy and, perhaps more importantly in the current international climate, shaping the image of Iran to the world. It is absolutely vital that this process and its consequences are carefully scrutinized and better understood by those interested or working in foreign affairs. I hope to contribute to that understanding with my work here at the PBOK. Tell your friends. 

The Iranian campaign season kicked off this past weekend. We now have our six Guardian Council approved candidates. They are the incumbent Hassan Rouhani, conservative cleric Ebrahim Raisi, Tehran Mayor Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf, reformist Eshagh Jahangiri, Mostafa Hashemitaba, and far-right hardliner Mostafa Mirsalim. The BBC has a good roundup of them and their bios here.

Notable by his absence is former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who declared his candidacy for the presidency earlier this month despite an explicit suggestion from the Supreme Leader not to do so. Unsurprisingly, the Guardian Council, which vets the registered candidates prior to placing them on the final ballot, rejected his candidacy. The council also disqualified Ahmadinejad’s deputy, Hamid Baghaei, who many thought would serve as a proxy for the controversial ex-president after his removal from the campaign. Ahmadinejad has already said that he will not back any of the remaining candidates.

Some observers have been left scratching their heads at the presence of Eshaq Jahangiri on the ballot. He’s a reformist and the first vice president of Rouhani’s current administration, but it would be a mistake to view this as an emerging fissure within the Rouhani administration on the eve of a reelection bid. Instead, Jahangiri is running as what Iranians call a “cover candidate,” meaning his job is to support Rouhani on the campaign trail and in the debates, amplifying his message before dropping out and throwing his support to the incumbent. His presence in the field also doubles the amount of TV and radio time for the reformist-moderate coalition (each candidate receives precisely 1110 minutes total air time, excluding the debates), which will help prevent their campaign messages from being drowned out by the more numerous conservatives in the field

It’s still too early to pick a favorite, although most commentators seem to think Rouhani has a good shot at reelection. I tend to agree, but there’s not a lot of hard data on which to base this prediction. For what it’s worth, no Iranian president has ever failed to win a second term in office, although that figure includes the controversial 2009 reelection of Ahmadinejad that ended in accusations of election fraud and prompted the Green Revolution protests.

Polling is relatively sparse in Iran, and, as with any authoritarian country, somewhat unreliable. There’s one outfit called IranPoll that has early assessments of some of the candidates based on a poll of 1,005 Iranians conducted between April 11 and 14, 2017. Based on their findings, Rouhani has the highest “very favorable” ratings (23%), but Qalibaf outpaces him on combined “very” and “somewhat favorable” ratings by a few percentage points (67-62). Raisi appears unfamiliar to a large segment of the population of this survey, with 46% of respondents saying they “don’t know the individual.”

If Rouhani has a weakness in this campaign, it’s that the issues that most concern Iranian voters don’t align with his perceived strengths as the country’s leader. Discussion of the Iranian economy will likely dominate this campaign. The majority of voters in the poll responded to an open-ended question on the most important issue facing the country with economy-related answers, including unemployment (42%), youth unemployment (13%), “various economic concerns” (11%), and the high cost of living (8%). Matters of foreign affairs such as “issues relating to the nuclear deal” and “international sanctions” only garnered 2% each, which may help explain why, despite more bloviating from the Trump administration this week about confronting Iran, Iranian officials have not devoted much energy or press space to any substantive response.

When asked about who can better accomplish certain goals as president, Rouhani scored higher than all other prospective candidates on issues related to foreign affairs, such as “improving Iran’s foreign relations” or “removing international sanctions.” But in economic categories such as “improving living conditions of the poor” or “reducing unemployment in Iran,” his numbers slip considerably. In the latter case, Rouhani’s rating fell behind Qalibaf’s. You can read the rest of the report here.

A lot depends on what happens in the space between now and election day on May 19. There will be three televised debates in that period, the first of which is scheduled for this Friday. Iranian authorities originally announced that the debates would be pre-recorded and aired at a later date, presumably with some editing, but recently reversed that decision in the face of protest. Ironically, the IRIB’s (Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting) reason for not airing the Iranian presidential debates live was probably the same as their reason for airing the American ones live last fall: They didn’t want the vitriol between the candidates to “blacken the image of the country.”

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