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Wednesday, December 6, 2023
Analysis by Farideh Farhi*
HONOLULU, Hawaii, May 11 2009 (IPS) - With the official registration period for candidates over on May 9, the race for Iran’s presidency is entering its final stretch.
According to the Ministry of Interior, 475 individuals, including 42 women, have registered for the Jun. 12 election, but no more that a handful will be cleared to run by the Islamic Republic’s Guardian Council. Still, the competition will be stiff with a run-off between the top two candidates likely on Jun. 19.
The race pits Iran’s conservative president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, against the former commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and current secretary of the Expediency Council Mohsen Rezaee, who is also a conservative, and two reformist candidates: former prime minister Mir Hossein Mussavi, and former parliamentary speaker – and the only cleric in the race – Mehdi Karrubi.
At this point, Mussavi is considered to be Ahmadinejad’s most serious challenger.
Initial expectations for this presidential race were different. Given the political weakness and lack of access to resources of the reformists, most observers believed that Ahmadinejad’s only real challenge would come from conservative forces, some of which have become increasingly unhappy with his expansionist economic policies and erratic management style.
Mussavi’s entry changed the dynamics of the race, finally forcing several hesitant conservative coalitions and organisations to set aside their disagreements and support Ahmadinejad as their “unity” candidate based on the perception that his chances of winning were greater compared to those of other conservatives.
The most his candidacy can do is to give cover to prominent conservatives, such as the current speaker of the parliament, Ali Larijani, and Tehran Mayor Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, allowing them to maintain their silence under the pretext of impartiality between the two conservative candidates.
Their continued silence favours Mussavi, who appears to be making a calculated effort to peel away conservative votes from Ahmadinejad by depicting himself as the true progeny of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, for whom he served as prime minister during the Iran-Iraq war. Lacking in charisma, Mussavi is running as a reformist who regularly cites the founding “principles” of the Islamic Revolution as a sop to those conservatives who call themselves “Principlists.”
He has attacked Ahmadinejad for weakening Iran’s managerial class, pursuing economic policies that have harmed the poor and middle classes, and promoting an extremist foreign policy that has inflicted serious damage on Tehran’s international image and interests.
To be sure, Mussavi has made clear that Iran’s nuclear programme is not negotiable. “No government can dare to take a step back on this issue,” he said recently. But, like Karrubi and Rezaee, he has called Ahmadinejad’s foreign policy adventurist and has explicitly used the term détente – a term used during reformist Mohammad Khatami’s presidency –with the world as a general guide for his foreign policy.
The Mussavi campaign is not without flaws or challenges. So far, his campaign organisation appears lacklustre. It remains to be seen whether help from some key Khatami lieutenants will bring discipline and vibrancy to a campaign that has so far failed to generate popular excitement.
Mussavi’s most serious challenge comes from Mehdi Karrubi, who is running on a platform of change. While Mussavi has managed to enlist strong support from Khatami and the endorsement of major reformist organisations, a number of leading reformists, human rights activists, and journalists have come out in favour of Karrubi, in part because of his past support for student and prisoner rights.
This division among reformists is likely to harm them unless, as some reformists believe, Karrubi actually draws more votes from Ahmadinejad than from Mussavi in the first round.
When Karrubi ran for the presidency in 2005, he campaigned on a populist platform that promised every Iranian citizen would receive cash payments from government oil revenue. Many observers believe that that pledge earned him many of the more than five million votes he received in the first round of the election and that Ahmadinejad, who ran as a populist, captured the bulk of those votes in the second round.
Today, those votes are up for grabs due to Ahmadinejad’s failure to deliver on his own redistributive policies. Karrubi’s presence may lead his previous supporters to move away from Ahmadinejad, particularly since Karrubi’s promised economic policies again rely on the idea of distributing the oil money, this time not in the form of direct cash payments, but rather a distribution of oil company shares.
Regional linkage is another reason why Karrubi’s presence may brighten the reformists’ prospects. Karrubi hails from an ethnic group centred in the southwestern part of Iran where he did particularly well in 2005. Mussavi, who is Azeri, is also expected to do well in the three Azeri-speaking northwestern provinces.
These regional linkages may increase the number of participants in several provinces, in the process reducing Ahmadinejad’s chance of receiving 50 percent of the total vote in the first round and setting the stage for a second round confrontation between Mussavi and Ahmadinejad.
In the second round, Mussavi is more likely to benefit from a large number of “anti-Ahmadinejad” votes, much the same way that, in the 2005 election, many votes were cast against former two-term President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. Ahmadinejad is much better known and has a solid base among hard-line conservative supporters, but he also has high negatives – estimates range as high as 60 percent – which will kick in during the second round.
What is unknown is the extent to which Ahmadinejad’s populist policies have expanded, rather than contracted, his base. Money has been and continues to be handed out, food distributed, and short-term loans extended, but wealth has not been significantly redistributed, and inflation has eroded whatever gains the public has made from these kinds of government largess.
Also unknown is the systemic will to re-elect Ahmadinejad.
On the one hand, Iran’s elections are run by the Interior Ministry and supervised by the Guardian Council, institutions that are currently headed by Ahmadinejad supporters. Certainly, there will be some voter manipulation, including voiding ballots and efforts by Interior Ministry-appointed provincial governors to encourage people, financially or otherwise, to vote for Ahmadinejad. National television, where most Iranians get their information, can also be critical in favouring one candidate over others.
What is not clear is the extent to which these kinds of instruments will and can be used if all of the candidates running are more or less acceptable to key players and political groups.
So far, one key player, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, has hewed to his past practice of refraining from publicly endorsing any candidate. But this year he has taken the unusual step of publicly pointing out that his support for Ahmadinejad as president should not be confused with support for him as candidate, effectively fueling speculation about his “real” preference.
Mussavi’s attempt to represent himself as someone who has a foot in both reformist and conservative camps must hence be seen in the light of his attempt both to take votes away from Ahmadinejad and to reduce the will on the part of conservative-controlled institutions to cheat.
At the same time, Ahmadinejad’s will to win, as well as resources he controls as a sitting president, should not be underestimated.
*Farideh Farhi is an Independent Scholar and Affiliate Graduate Faculty of Political Science at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa.
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