Iran looks to avoid repeat of 2009 in presidential election

Tehran’s tight control of the presidential election means the poll will not necessarily say much about the popularity of the regime. Published in MEED, 11 June 2009

In Iranian politics, there is never a lack of scapegoats and they are often overseas. So it was not a surprise to hear Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei tell an audience in Tehran on 4 June that the country’s enemies were hoping the forthcoming election would go badly. “They wish either a low turnout in the election or sedition to emerge after the election,” he said.

It is impossible to predict how many people will turn out to vote on 14 June, but senior figures have put a lot of store in high turnouts at other elections in recent years. Controlling what happens after the election might prove more of a headache. The authorities have been doing everything in their power to prevent a repeat of the events of 2009, when huge protests sprang up across the country against the perceived vote rigging, which gave Mahmoud Ahmadinejad a second term as president. He cannot contest this election due to limits on presidential terms.

This time, the Guardian Council blocked all but eight of the hundreds of candidates who put themselves forward. Those denied a chance to run included two who looked particularly dangerous to the regime: Ahmadinejad’s chief of staff Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei and former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. In addition, there has been tight control of the media and attempts by officials to paint any domestic opponents of the process as foreign stooges.

Conservative candidates

The eight approved candidates have all held senior positions in the regime. They include Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili, who is seen by many as the preferred choice of Khamenei, although it is not at all clear if the Supreme Leader’s enthusiasm is shared by many in the wider population. Two candidates have since withdrawn from the running.

The other candidates include former Revolutionary Guards commander Mohsen Rezayee; former communications minister Mohammad Gharazi; former foreign minister Ali Akbar Velayati who is also Khamenei’s foreign policy adviser; and the mayor of Tehran Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf.

All of these figures are conservatives. They are joined on the slate by the moderate, former chief nuclear negotiator Hassan Rouhani, although it is rumoured he may be forced to withdraw.

Even then, the candidates and their supporters have not had an entirely free hand. Several supporters of Rouhani were reportedly arrested in early June at a campaign rally, apparently after calling for the release of Mir Hossein Mousavi, the reformist candidate who was defeated by Ahmadinejad in 2009.

Getting their messages across to the electorate has not been easy for the candidates. The campaign has been a short one, officially running from 22 May to 13 June, and although there have been some TV debates featuring the candidates, few campaign posters have been displayed.

Voting on 14 June is due to take place at some 66,000 polling stations around the country and a further 285 abroad. In the event of no candidate receiving more than 50 per cent of the vote, a run-off will be held between the two most popular contestants on 21 June. It seems likely that the voting itself will be both closely monitored and carefully managed by the regime. “Are these elections going to be free? I don’t think so,” said Saeed Barzin, an Iran analyst with the BBC Persian Service, at an event in London on 5 June.

“The crackdown on political parties [and] on the press has been extensive. Would they be fair? Of course not. Would they cheat? I think if necessary they could do so.”

Key challenges

Once the voting has been completed and assuming it does not provoke mass protests as in 2009, the key challenge for the incoming president will be to turn around the economic fortunes of Iran.

During the campaign, the candidates have promised to tackle inflation, which is now running at more than 30 per cent, and rising unemployment.

They have also vowed to boost domestic industrial production as a way to counteract the effect of international sanctions, but there has been little in the way of clear policy proposals for achieving those aims.

With no indication that the Supreme Leader is willing to consider any compromise on Iran’s nuclear policy, the idea of reinvigorating the economy in the face of sanctions is a Herculean task. It is also one that is getting harder all the time.

Even as this election campaign progressed, the US was stepping up the economic pressure, imposing new sanctions on Iran’s car industry and on banks dealing in Iranian rials.

Khamenei and others might be quick to accuse Iran’s international enemies for causing the country’s problems and slow to accept any share of the blame themselves, but it is certainly true that the actions of the US are having an impact on the economy. When it comes to elections, however, the problems are solely a domestic affair.