All Eyes on the Conservatives

I realize it’s not always easy to remember the cast of characters involved in Iranian politics, so if you need a quick refresher of the candidates’ names and profiles, please see here.

Here’s one of those “big, if true” moments. Vaghaye Daily, a relatively small reformist newspaper, reported that the chief of staff of Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf’s campaign said that one of the conservative candidates will need to withdraw for the other to have a shot at winning:

Translation: Chief of Staff of the Qalibaf Campaign in Kerman: After considering the polling and the sense of popularity among the people, #Qalibaf or #Raisi will step aside from the election.

It’s difficult to know what to make of this. The way this quote is reported in the tweet, it sounds like there’s a chance that the conservatives are starting to see the writing on the wall. Facing the prospect of a relatively popular incumbent opponent who enjoys the united support of the reformist and moderate political factions, they cannot afford to split the vote in the first round of the election and risk neither of them making it to the runoff round.

Still, it’s difficult to predict which candidate will sacrifice himself for the good of the other. Both men have a lot riding on this campaign. For Qalibaf, this is his third shot at the presidency. Neither of his previous efforts fared particularly well. In 2005 he placed a distant fourth, falling behind in the final days of the campaign as the conservative establishment lined up behind Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He skipped the next election in 2009 but took a second crack in 2013. He placed ordinally better in that attempt by coming second to current President Hassan Rouhani in the first round of voting but was only able to secure 16.6% of the vote to Rouhani’s 50.9%, thereby failing to force a runoff. With decent favorability ratings after a lengthy period serving as the Mayor of Tehran combined with the mixed results of Rouhani’s first term, especially in the economic realm, this year may represent Qalibaf’s best chance to finally win the post he’s sought for over a decade.

Raisi, meanwhile, is the candidate with the purest conservative credentials. A former member of the judiciary who now heads the powerful Astan Quds Razavi Foundation — as well as a close friend of the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei — Raisi seemed like the obvious consensus choice of the conservative establishment. Unfortunately for him, his popularity among the conservative elite does not equate to favorability with the Iranian population. It’s not that he’s unpopular per se, it’s simply that a large portion of people do not know who he is.

More troubling for Raisi, as Reza Marashi pointed out in Al-Monitor last week, is that even the perception of his most-favored status among the clerical elite may be something of a facade. Marashi argues that Raisi has been spending the last few weeks trying to appeal directly to Western media to establish himself as the presumptive favorite of the Supreme Leader, hoping that this perception will trickle back into Iran via the hardline press. This is a dubious strategy, as Marashi notes, since not only has the Supreme Leader already explicitly stated that he favors no particular candidate in this election, but the exact same strategy failed to help the conservative candidate Saeed Jalili in 2013 finish higher than third with a paltry 11.3% of the final vote.

Like Qalibaf, Raisi has little incentive to pull out of the race. With Khamenei growing old and his health increasingly uncertain, Raisi is widely considered a potential candidate to replace him as Supreme Leader. Since Khamenei is only the second Supreme Leader in the country’s history, there isn’t much precedent for succession in this post. Khamenei served as President for two terms prior to becoming Supreme Leader upon the death of Ruhollah Khomeini in 1989, so it’s possible that Raisi sees the presidency as an important stepping stone to Supreme Leadership.

If the conservatives are planning something, it may come out during the debate tomorrow. In the first debate, they behaved more or less autonomously, with Qalibaf engaging directly with Rouhani and Jahangiri and Raisi trying mostly to stay out of the way. A repetition of that approach won’t benefit either of them. If Qalibaf and Raisi want to help one another, they will have to start publicly coordinating their messaging. They will have to team up to attack the Jahangiri-Rouhani alliance on different fronts and defend each other during counterattacks. I would also expect to see some measure of praise expressed between the two conservative candidates to indicate at least a minimal level of mutual respect. If they actually intend to unite their electoral forces, they can’t simply ignore each other until the last moment if/when one of them drops out. If the conservatives actually have a coordinated plan, tomorrow is the time to show it.

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