Iran elections, what is at stake

In Iran, elections are always full of surprises. Many unexpected results have been produced since the 1990s, and since early 1980s, every president has won a second term. On May 19th, Iranians will go to the polls. They will choose the country’s next president.

They will determine which direction the Islamic Republic will take in the coming years: either toward its republican or theocratic character. Even this time, elections outcomes are hard to be predicted. What is at stake? Economy is the key issue, the main battlefield.

Who is shaping the contest

"In Iran, it's not only an election, it's also a selection," argued Clement Therme, Iran research fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, in an interview with the AFP news agency. Although 1636 candidates have registered to run, only six have been approved by the cleric-controlled Guardian Council and former leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was disqualified. Current president Hassan Rouhani’s main contenders will be Tehran mayor Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, and the hardliner Ebrahim Raisi, who is the custodian of the Astan Quds Razavi (a charity that manages the shrine of the eighth Shiite imam in Mashhad), and is also considered to be a frontrunner for next supreme leader. The list of approved candidates includes moderate Eshaq Jahangiri (senior vice President), Mostafa Mirsalim (former minister of Culture), and former pro-reform vice president Mostafa Hashemitaba.

Economy: the most urgent theme for Iranians

“Is economic situation of Iran getting better, getting worse or has remained roughly unchanged?”, asked a recent survey conducted by Iran Poll, a Toronto-based research company, relying on responses given by about 1000 Iranians. 52% of those questioned answered: “Getting worse”, while 31% “getting better”. 

Moreover, asked about the shifts in families living standards as compared to four years ago, 51% of those surveyed said that conditions “remained unchanged”, 35% said “deteriorated” and 11% “improved”. Only 3% of respondents evaluated the current economic situation as “very good”, while 31% considered it “somewhat good” against 35% who deemed Iranian economic status as “somewhat bad”.

Furthermore, unemployment stands on the top of Iranians’ worries. Financial difficulties have been persistent in the past years. In the post-sactions and post-Nuclear deal era the top priority is changing course. Especially young people are suffering the lack of job positions and opportunities for their future.

Rouhani’s challenges

While Rouhani is still carrying the burden of leading Iran towards a new economic and political phase through the JCPOA, his contenders and harsh critics on the Iranian deal – such as hardliner Raisi –  are stressing on job creation, “dignity and work” as key themes. “We feel that the unemployment crisis is solvable and that this crisis can be solved by creating 1.5 million jobs every year,” said Raisi. Likewise, Ghalibaf pledged to provide the equivalent of about 80 dollars per month to every jobless person in the country.

In this though context, the Supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei urged all candidates to “promise the people that in order for the country to progress, for economic growth and to untie the knots, their eyes won’t be set outside our borders but on the nation itself,” as reported by the official Islamic Republic News Agency. This sounded as a clear message to the current president.

Nevertheless, in his first term, as I already explored in this column, Rouhani has achieved three positive results: 1) he was able to handle the difficult relations with conservative factions and, primarily, with the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei; 2) he took home the nuclear deal and sanctions relief; 3) he reduced the inflation rate to 9.5%, which represented a record in twenty-five years. Nevertheless: 1) unemployment remains quite high of 11.8%; 2) poverty and social inequality is still a problem [here’s the World Bank’s data]; 3) the industrial sector is still struggling to recover: production fell by 2.9% at the beginning of 2016.

Beyond the simplistic narrative of a struggle reformists versus hardliners

Therefore, the battle is far beyond the dispute between moderates-reformists against hardliners, and vice versa. The question is: will Iran continue what begun with Rouhani? The elections will lead the way Iran will start trekking both in the short and in the long term, narrowing down the political space domestically and externally.


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