Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Iran’s Conservatives Lose a Presidential Election and More

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Iran’s Conservatives Lose a Presidential Election and More

Article excerpt

IN THE PAST two decades, Iranian presidential elections have been accompanied with surprising results and even tumult. Newcomers have won against better-known and -financed politicians while presumed establishment candidates and assumed winners have done poorly. This time around, the surprise was not in the results but the blunt conversation generated by the campaign and the skeptical way the voters assessed the promises of the candidates. Current President Hassan Rouhani was re-elected relying on a motto that emphasized continuity and improving on the course that his election initiated in 2013. A solid majority of voters responded to this motto of "we shall not return to the past." Had he not been re-elected, that would have been a surprise. But the convincing way he won in the midst of an all-out assault by his opponents against his governing record requires explanation.

At this point it is not possible to do an analysis of the composition of the vote. The Interior Ministry has yet to release detailed data about precincts or even provinces. Governors of various provinces have released information about the total number of votes for each candidate, but not all provinces have done so. Hence, any comments about urban-rural or middle class vs. poor neighborhood splits are not warranted. If anything, the general information about the provinces suggests that the kind of splits proposed in the press may not hold. For instance, many of the provinces with higher rural concentration tended toward Rouhani, while the highly urban (and religious) province/city of Qom went to his opponent Ebrahim Raisi (55 percent). So have the three Khorasan provinces that have historically been dominated by the Imam Reza Shrine, for which Raisi is the custodian (Raisi has reportedly also won in Hamedan, Semnan and Zanjan provinces). Furthermore, the spread in the other provinces is quite varied, with Rouhani scoring more than 65 percent in provinces such as Tehran, both East and West Azerbaijan, Kermanshah and Albroz, more than 70 percent in Kordestan and Sistan and Baluchistan, while achieving much closer margins in some other provinces.

Still, there is no question that Rouhani was re-elected convincingly. To be sure, Rouhani was also elected in 2013 by a wide margin against his multiple opponents when he received slightly over 50 percent of the vote and his closest opponent garnered only 16 percent of the vote. His surprising victory in 2013 was made possible through an alliance of reformists, moderates, and some middle-of-the-road conservatives, an alliance that also proved successful in the 2016 parliamentary election. But his slightly over 50 percent vote in that election gave his conservative opponents-identified as principlists inside Iran-the impression that if they managed to unify around a single candidate, and focus on the continued economic ills of the country, they could prevent his re-election. Using a semi-democratic process, they eventually did manage to unify behind the candidacy of Raisi, a former high-ranking member of the judiciary and current custodian of the well-endowed Imam Reza Shrine. But their candidate proved weak in both formulating his message as well as delivering it.

In the end, despite an increase in eligible voters by six million since the 2013 presidential election, the total vote cast for Raisi (close to 16 million) was slightly less than the total number of votes Rouhani's separate conservative opponents received in 2013. In other words, unity did nothing to expand support for the principlist camp. Meanwhile, Rouhani bettered his 2013 record significantly by expanding the number of votes garnered from about 18.6 million to 23.5 million.

How Rouhani managed this accomplishment is the story of this election. A lackluster campaign of 55-60 percent turnout would have posed a real danger to his re-election. Instead a savvy campaign produced a 73 percent turnout by transforming Rouhani into a good-humored and caring father figure who insisted that his opponent's proposed policies endangered the progress and stability the country had enjoyed since the 2013 election. …

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