Iran Presidential Elections: a Sharp Clash
Marina Forti 17 May 2017

The crowd is chanting slogans to the rhythm of pop songs, young people wearing purple and green bandanas are waving placards while famous artists take turns at the microphone appealing for votes. This is an election rally held at a sports centre in Tehran by Hasan Rouhani, president of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Similar scenes are being repeated all over the country in various contexts and equally large crowds assemble to support his direct opponent.

On Friday May 19th the Iranians will be called upon to once again elect the president of the republic and renew municipal councils in a number of large cities (first among them Tehran, a metropolis of over 15 million inhabitants surrounded by an incredible extension of suburbs). This is an intense albeit brief electoral campaign (officially lasting twenty days), a campaign based on social networks as well as old-fashioned pamphlet distribution and dozens of election rallies attracting large crowds all over the country.

These are important elections. It is true that in the president has limited power Islamic Republic’s institutional organisation. It is also true that candidates must pass close inspection by the Council of Guardians, the assembly of theologians having power of veto beyond any public scrutiny. And yet it would be a mistake to think that in Iran the popular vote is irrelevant; the political clash is real and polling stations often provide a surprise, as proven by the current electoral campaign.

Coups de theatre

The election campaign started off with six candidates, but the real battle is between 68-year-old outgoing President Hasan Rohani and the main conservative candidate, 57-year-old Ebrahim Raisi. They are both members of the clergy, both part of the Islamic Republic’s system, but represent two opposed political agendas.

On the one hand there is the moderate who four years ago fuelled the hopes of Iranians, promising he would ensure the country abandoned its isolation, that the controversy concerning the nuclear programme would be resolved, that he would free Iran of international sanctions suffocating its economy and re-establish an atmosphere of social freedom; the subject of the electoral campaign is the extent to which he has achieved all this, but openness and diplomacy are still options.

On the other hand there is an ultra-conservative hojjatol-eslām (superior to a mullah, inferior to an ayatollah) a loyal ally of the Supreme Guide who last year promoted him to “guardian” of the Astan Quds Razavi, the wealthiest religious foundation in the entire Islamic world (also responsible for the sanctuary of the Imam Reza a Mashad, one of the most important Shia places of worship). Raisi, 57, has been Tehran’s attorney general and presided over the special committee that in 1988 ordered the mass execution of political prisoners. His candidature is the expression of the Iranian system’s most extremist branches, those at times described as “principalist”, another word for “extremist”.

There were also other candidates. Among the conservatives there was Mohammad Baqr Qalibaf, the 50-year-old Mayor of Tehran, a former police commander and an officer in the Revolutionary Guards. Defeated twice in the presidential elections and surrounded by controversy concerning the freedom accorded to property speculators in his management of Tehran (involving inevitable scandals and corruption), Qalibaf did not have much chance. His role was that of attracting the “modern”, urban conservative voters; those patronising the capital’s shopping malls. He withdrew on Monday calling on his supporters to vote for Raisi.

On the opposite front, an important role has been played by the reformist Eshaq Jahangiri, currently deputy president in the Rouhani government and previously a minister in the administration led by Mohammad Khatami, the president who between 1998 and 2004 started the first political and social openness in post-revolution Iran. In the televised debars between candidates, Jehangiri had been a persuasive speaker even for the most disenchanted voters and defended his government’s achievements. He too withdrew on Tuesday and, as expected, asked his supporters to vote for Rouhani.

Freedom and jobs

The choice for the 56 million Iranian voters out of a population of almost 80 million, of which two thirds are under the age of 35, is between these two candidates, an ultra-conservative and a moderate. For President Rouhani, perhaps the most feared opponent will be abstention.

What is at stake in this electoral campaign? “That depends on which social class one is observing,” said the economist and political analyst Saeed Leylaz, when we met in Tehran. “Maintaining an atmosphere of freedom and social openness is important above all to the urban population. But the burning issue for everyone is the economy and it is on this issue that there is the strongest political clash.”

Freedom matters. The Rouhani administration has implemented a relatively open atmosphere in Iranian society; it is relative because the judiciary, state television and the security forces remain autonomous powers as well as conservative strongholds. Many critics and dissidents are still in prison. The rights of religious minorities such as the Ba’hai are under attack. Censorship has never been removed nor has the closing down of websites. Many, however, give the president and his government credit for having fought to oppose repression, guarantee some freedoms, report arrests and relieve pressure on the media and culture. It is no coincidence that filmmakers such as Asghar Farhadi (director of “A Separation”) have asked people to vote for the incumbent president.

Rouhani, therefore, has the support of a broad spectrum of civil society, the moderates, the reformists and even many conservatives who have been frightened by the extremist attitudes of his opponents. Significant support has come from former President Mohammad Khatami, the man who started the first political and social inclusiveness and continues to enjoy great popularity among Iranians. “We will vote Rouhani for freedom of expression…the certainty of law, human rights and economic and social justice” said the former president in a video broadcast on social media on Monday.

Khatami’s message was widely distributed although not even mentioned by the official press and television. The judiciary, which has a special section for the media, has for some years forbidden even showing an image of the former reformist president. The Iranian paradox means that state television has even censored the official video for Rouhani’s election campaign, hence that of the current president, and the frames removed are those in which one could see Khatami’s face on the screen of a mobile phone. This is a ban that President Rouhani denounced a few days ago at a political rally, saying, “On what basis do you prevent the publication of photographs of our leaders? What law authorises you to do this? Iranians want these restrictions to end.”

Other slogans echo at the outgoing president’s electoral rallies, including, “No to the morality police”, “Yes to equal rights.” Last week about a hundred well-known feminists and social activists signed a statement asking the next president to defend women’s rights, reform discriminatory laws (for example family law), guarantee access to public places such as stadiums and appoint more women to government positions. The signatories of such appeals do not expect much from the conservatives and are effectively addressing Rouhani, criticised for not having addressed these issues much during his campaign while remaining the only possible interlocutor.

“This is not a question of choosing the lesser of two evils,” observed a famous feminist sociologist when we met last week during the Tehran Book Fair. “Rouhani is the best option we have, the only guarantee that a degree of openness will continue and that we will not sink back onto the isolation and repression we experienced for years under Ahmadi Nejad. His real problem is providing jobs for the young.”

An impoverished nation

That is the problem. Iranians are already experiencing hard times. The middle classes are impoverished. “Buying power has fallen by 23% compared to 2010”, said Saeed Leylaz, “And if one looks at state employees or teachers it has really collapsed. Basic necessities are more expensive than ten years ago and consumption has fallen.” The Rouhani administration has done its best, continues the economist. “It has managed to contain inflation at about 10% after it had risen to over 40% during the last two years in which Ahmadi Nejad was in power, but this is not enough to return to our previous buying power.” Furthermore, unemployment is high at about 13% of the entire workforce, but rising to 24 % and even 30% among the young. “Over the past four years 3 million jobs have been lost”, explained Leylaz, “And another ten million young people will join the labour market over the next five years. In the best case scenario, 4 million will find jobs, but what about the others?”

“Unemployment affects the young and women in a disproportionate manner also because women’s participation in the labour market continues to increase,” observed Ali-Reza Mahjub, a reformist Member of Parliament I met at the Iranian parliament, the Majlis. Elected in the working class suburb of Eslamshahr near Tehran, Mahjub is the historical leader of the “Workers’ House”, one of the revolutionary institutions (hence governmental) which then became a sort of Labour branch of the “Islamic Left”. “A few jobs have been created in the services sector, but industry is losing more jobs than it creates” he said. The MP for Eslamshahr also defends Rouhani’s government (which has a Labour and Welfare Minister who belongs to the Labour branch) saying that it has extended heath care, optimised subsidies and various redistribution measures. “However, in order to give citizens a normal life, welfare is not enough, jobs are needed or we will move towards a social catastrophe.”

Nowadays Iranian workers live in poverty. This is paradoxical 38 years after a revolution that sided with the “disinherited”.

The situation is critical, as also acknowledged by the Supreme Guide who dedicated to the economy most of his speech on Nowroz (Persian New Year, March 21st). The Ayatollah Khamenei spoke of unemployment and the lack of investments, saying, “Without a strong economy we will not achieve dignity or security.”

“To resolve the economy’s problems one must first address the political issues,” said Leylaz. In summary, he said that Iran is suffering from a collapse in investments, from corruption and cronyism. The fact is that the Iranian economy is dominated by religious foundations or those linked to the Revolutionary Guards, which have military, political and economic power. The economist explained that when one says that the public sector amounts to between 65% and 70% of the Iranian economy, it must be known that “state companies amount to about 25% of the total. The rests consists of this semi-state apparatus”, which is a separate power system fostered by bureaucracy, laws and the banks.

In his Nowroz speech, the Supreme Guide included smuggling in the economy’s evils. It is estimated that every year $15 billion worth of goods are imported through informal channels by “criminal gangs” (without however mentioning what everyone in Iran knows, which is that smuggling goes through the ports controlled by the Revolutionary Guards and that it would be difficult for this to take place without a degree of complicity).

All this is the legacy of the Ahmadi Nejad administration. During those years, observed Leylaz, Iran benefitted from high oil revenue (hydrocarbons are the state’s top source of revenue) but invested little in the productive system with the economy growing only 2.2%. Speculative revenue increased instead, which did not generate investments but rather wealth that “ends up in foreign banks, in gold or in ostentatious spending.”

In 2016 the Iranian economy started to grow again (6.4%) and the World Bank’s estimate for 2017 is over 7%, mainly thanks to the resumption of oil exports. However, in order to consolidate the revival, Rouhani needs time.

Will he have time? In Iran there is currently a power clash the object of which is control over the economic system and this too is overflowing into the presidential elections. During its first mandate, the Rouhani government blocked a number of projects assigned without a contract tender to a company belonging to the Revolutionary Guards. A few days ago the president thundered, “Why should foundations not pay tax like any other company?” It is a very tough clash and the outcome is uncertain.

Translated by Francesca Simmons



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