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Rafsanjani Shut Out of Iran’s Presidential Race

HONOLULU, Hawaii, May 22 2013 (IPS) - With the disqualification of former president and current chair of the Expediency Council Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani by a vetting body, the Guardian Council, Iran’s presidential campaign is opening with many in the country in a state of shock.

Although the eight qualified candidates offer somewhat of a choice given their different approaches to the economy and foreign policy, the disqualification of Rafsanjani has once again raised the spectre that the conservative establishment intends to manipulate the electoral process in such a way that only a conservative candidate will win when voters cast their ballots Jun. 14.

Rafsanjan’s candidacy, which received solid support from former reformist president Mohammad Khatami, had created hope among a section of the Iranian population — unhappy with the policies of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — that a real contest over the direction of the country was possible.

In his first statement after declaring his candidacy, Rafsanjani had made clear that returning the country towards “moderation” and away from the “extremism” that had taken hold in both domestic and foreign policy was his objective.

His stature and name recognition had immediately catapulted him as the most formidable candidate against the conservative establishment.

The possibility that the Guardian Council would disqualify a man who is the appointed chair of the Expediency Council and an elected member of the Clerical Council of Experts was deemed unfathomable to many.

In the words of conservative MP Ali Mottahari, who had pleaded with Rafsanjani to register as a candidate, “if Hashemi is disqualified, the foundations of the revolution and the whole system of the Islamic Republic will be questioned.”

Rafsanjani’s unexpected disqualification poses a challenge for his supporters, who include centrists, reformists and even some middle-of-the-road conservatives such as Mottahari: who, if anyone, will they now support in the election?

The slate of approved candidates includes two individuals — former nuclear negotiator Hassan Rowhani and former first vice president Mohammadreza Aref — who hold mostly similar views to Rafsanjani.

In fact, both had said that they would withdraw if Rafsanjani’s candidacy was approved. But neither is as well known as the former president and they will now have to compete against each other in attracting likeminded voters.

Rowhani has chosen to run as an independent, while Aref is running as a reformist. While Rafsanjani’s candidacy had energised and unified the reformists and centrists, the campaign of these two lesser known candidates may be cause for disunity and/or voter apathy.

A third candidate, Mohammad Gharazi — who may also have centrist tendencies — is even less known throughout the country.

He served first as the minister of petroleum and then post, telegraph, and telephone in the cabinet of then-prime minister Mir Hossein Mussavi — now under house arrest after his 2009 presidential bid — and then in Rafsanjani’s cabinet when he served as president.

But since 1997, Ghazari has not held public office. Furthermore, no one really knows his views or why he was qualified when several other ministers with more recent experience were not.

Reformist supporters, already distraught over the previous contested election and continued incarceration of candidates they voted for in 2009, may see Rafsanjani’s disqualification as yet another sign that their vote will not count.

Apathy or abstention in protest among supporters is now a real issue for the centrists and reformists. This challenge may — and only may — be overcome if one of the candidates agrees to withdraw in favour of the other and the popular former reformist president Khatami throws his support behind the unified candidate in the same way he did with the candidacy of Rafsanjani.

But even this may not be enough. The reality is that the low name recognition of both candidates limits the impact of such political manoeuvring and coalition-building by the reformists, especially if the conservative-controlled security establishment makes campaigning and the spread of information difficult. Already Aftab News, a website affiliated with Rowhani, has been blocked.

This leaves the competition among the other five candidates who come from the conservative bloc. One, former presidential candidate, Mohsen Rezaee, is also running as an independent and is both the most likely to last until Election Day and the least likely to garner many votes.

It is the competition among the other four conservative candidates — Tehran mayor Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, former foreign minister Ali Akbar Velayati, former Parliamentary Speaker Gholamali Haddad Adel, and current nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili — that will in all likelihood determine the fate of the election.

If Rafsanjani had been qualified, there would have been an urge for unity among these candidates since, without such unity, the former president could have received the 50 percent plus one necessary to win in the first round.

Now, however, the same forces that had prevented the conservative candidates from rallying behind one candidate remain in play.

Polls published by various Iranian news agencies, although not very reliable, uniformly suggest that Qalibaf is the most popular conservative candidate because of his management of the Tehran megapolis and the vast improvement in the delivery of services he has overseen there.

But Qalibaf’s relative popularity has not yet been sufficient to convince other candidates to unite behind him. This may eventually happen after televised presidential debates if he does well in them and if Velayati and Haddad Adel drop out in his favour since, from the beginning, the three of them had agreed that eventually the most popular should stand on Election Day.

But there is no guarantee that this will happen. Velayati in particular has ambitions of his own and has implied that Leader Ali Khameni’s preference should be given at least as much weight as polls, giving rise to speculation that he is the Leader’s preferred candidate despite clear signs that he has not been able to create much excitement even among conservative voters.

Convincing the hard-line candidate Jalili to drop out in favour of Qalibaf will be even harder.

In fact, from now until Election Day there will probably be as much pressure on Qalibaf to drop out in favour of Jalili as the other way around in the hope that a unified conservative candidate can win in the first round, avoiding the risk of either Rowhani or Aref making it to the second round where the top two candidates will have to compete on Jun. 21.

Jalili is the least experienced — and well known — of all the conservative candidates and, in a campaign in which economy is the number one issue by far, there are real concerns regarding whether he is experienced enough to manage Iran’s deep economic problems.

But his late entry in the presidential race, minutes after Rafsanjani entered it, has also given rise to speculation that he, instead of Velayati, may be the Leader’s preferred choice.

What is not a subject of speculation is the fact that Jalili takes the hardest line of all the candidates.

His campaign slogan of “hope, justice, and resistance” suggests that he is the most likely to continue current policies, although perhaps with less bombast and populist flair than the current president.

As such, Jalili stands apart from the other seven candidates who will campaign on the need for both change and competent leadership.

Jalili jumped into the race at the last minute as a hard-line counter to Rafsanjani’s call for moderation. Ironically, with the latter’s disqualification, he now stands alone as the candidate whom others will try to mobilise voters against.

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david smerdon