External Affairs

Why Ebrahim Raisi, Conservative Challenger in Iran’s Election, is Giving Rouhani Cause for Worry

Two recent rallies in Tehran highlighted just how different the two candidates’ supporters and their concerns for the country are.

Hassan Rouhani (L) and Ebrahim Raisi addressing rallies. Credit: Reuters

Hassan Rouhani (L) and Ebrahim Raisi addressing rallies. Credit: Reuters

Tehran: The small huddle of chador-wearing women handing out campaign cards of conservative candidates for the city council at the complex gate barely hinted at the hordes that had already made a beeline for Shabestan, the cavernous hall at Imam Khomeini Mosalla in north Tehran.

As the main hall loomed closer, the trickle of people turned into continuous streams of men and women, amidst a cacophony of horns and excited chatter. They came with hand-written placards and printed posters, and moved towards the gates quickly.

Several were already marching to slogans that would soon boom around the rally advertised as the “biggest convention” of conservative candidate Ebrahim Raisi’s followers. Female volunteers wearing a red sash checked bags and tried to maintain a semblance of discipline – but this often seemed like a losing battle. Thousands of long-stemmed red roses were distributed, which were promptly planted at the top of small iranian flags.

After President Hassan Rouhani staged a highly successful show of strength on Sunday, the conservative camp – or the ‘principalists’, as they are known in Iran – pulled out all the stops to project the breadth of their support in the Iranian capital city three days ahead of the presidential elections on May 19.

An hour before the scheduled start at 4:30 pm, 26-year-old Tahoora was standing outside the hall gates, taking in the excitement and posing for the cameras with her 15-month-old baby, who playing with a poster of Raisi in his stroller.

“Our national honour has been darkened by the failure of Barjam,” said the law student, using the Farsi acronym for the Joint Comprehensive Point of Action – the agreement Iran signed with the US and other countries to end the sanctions over its nuclear energy programme. Rouhani has been assailed by his opponents for failing to cash in on the nuclear deal in order to recover from the economic recession, with remaining US sanctions continuing to stall foreign investment due to restricted banking. She also accused Rouhani of not taking a firmer position with Saudi Arabia. Tahoora, who gave only her first name, was swathed in an all-encompassing chador, just like the overwhelming majority of women at the rally.

While Rouhani has visibly raised the public profile of Iranian women, Tahoora felt that Raisi also has pro-women credentials. “His wife is a very active supporter of women’s rights,” she argued. In fact, Raisi prominently mentions his wife, Jamileh Alamolhoda, in his campaign video, which is certainly an attempt to offset Rouhani’s stated claims that only he “understands” women.

As Tahoora stood in front of the gates, two men walked up the steps, with the words, “Qalibaf, thank you for your support”.

Tehran mayor Mohammad Bagherhad Qalibaf withdrew his third presidential bid on Monday evening and called on his followers to vote for Raisi. Immediately after the announcement, the Raisi’s campaign released a poster depicting Qalibaf in a yellow construction hat, along with a smiling visage of Raisi.

Also read: In Iran Election, Rouhani’s Real Opponent is the Economy, Not Conservatives

Qalibaf’s gesture – though expected – surprised some of his most devoted followers. Earlier on Monday, Masoumeh Furahmand, sitting at one of Qalibaf’s campaign offices, was adamant that her candidate would not consider stepping aside. “In the last 12 years, whatever he has promised, he has done,” she explained the reason behind her admiration of Qalibaf.

A former Revolutionary Guards commander, Qalibaf cornered plaudits for developing Tehran’s impressive public spaces, but his chameleon-like makeovers ahead of his last two presidential bids raised questions about his political stability. There were also more and more concerns raised over corruption, which were alluded to during televised debates. A recent fire at central Tehran’s Plasco building that left 15 firemen died and flagged lax safety standards, fuelled further criticism.

Nevertheless, Qalibaf had a dedicated cadre of voters. In the 2013 election, he got 6,083,553 votes or 16% of the total ballot, coming second in the race that Rouhani won.

“All of us at the campaign headquarters cried when he announced his decision, but we will follow what he told us,” Furahmand told The Wire on Tuesday.

At Tuesday’s rally, Hussein Airaki, 23, held a poster for Qalibaf among the sea of Raisi supporters. “I had voted for Rouhani in 2013, as he had a plan to bring down inflation. He doesn’t act on what he has said. This time, I am with Qalibaf, and now I will vote for Raisi,” he said.

According to Farzan Sabet of Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation, Qalibaf’s decision to step down was a reflection of the “serious desire” of conservatives to defeat Rouhani. “This requires that they unify behind a single candidate to avoid splitting their support as they did in the 2013 Iranian presidential election. Raisi was the candidate with the most credibility and influence among conservatives, and for this reason they decided to unify behind him and pressured Ghalibaf to drop out, even if the latter may have had broader popular appeal,” Sabet told The Wire.

Most analysts believe the entire bloc of Qalibaf supporters will probably not side with Raisi, with some likely to vote for Rouhani. Sabet was less optimistic about Raisi getting onto the winning podium with the help of Qalibaf’s votes. “Raisi needed all of Ghalibaf’s votes and then some to win, but given that some of the latter’s votes will go to Rouhani, this places a victory increasingly out of reach,” he said. But the divided loyalties of Qalibaf voters did not seem to bother those at the Sabehstan, where high-pitched screams and passionate sing-alongs gave the event the feel of a rock concert.

Despite Raisi not arriving on time, there was no dip in the interest. The crowd waited for over one and a half hours, waving the red and green Iranian flag as they chanted slogans about an eminent farewell to Rouhani. “End of the week, Rouhani is gone,” shouted the entire audience in unison. At other times, they sloganeered, “Welcome Raisi, you should go Rouhani”. There was also loud support for Lebanon’s biggest Shia militant group. “Mashallah, Hezbollah,” the crowd roared again and again.

Iran’s involvement in another conflict in the region was also apparent – a women walked around the hall with a poster of a soldier who had been killed in Syria.

Almost every hand held a smartphone, scanning over the top of heads towards the dais which displayed images of Raisi and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei.

The master of ceremonies exhorted the gathering to spread the message of the rally, through photos and text, on social media – a reflection of how the hardliners had to match up to the reformists in harnessing the new medium. In Iran, Twitter and Facebook are banned, but Telegram and Instagram are the platform of choice for political campaigners to spread their message. Many placards displayed the Farsi-language hashtag ‘Rouhani Buro’ or  ‘Go Rouhani’. While some had pinned this message to the back of their t-shirts, a young boy inked it on his lower arm.

A young Raisi supporter with 'Go Rouhani' inked on his arm. Credit: Devirupa Mitra

A young Raisi supporter with ‘Go Rouhani’ inked on his arm. Credit: Devirupa Mitra

The crowd finally got their money’s worth when a black-turbaned Raisi joined hands with Qalibaf and raised them high, amidst thunderous applause. Raisi’s speech was peppered with catchphrases, calling for a return of the ‘revolutionary’ spirit with a ‘revolutionary administration’ and promising to practice ‘revolutionary diplomacy’.

The adulation of a presidential campaign is a new experience for Raisi, who is a political novice compared to Qalibaf. A former student of Qom and a judicial officer for decades, Raisi came to the spotlight only last year when Khamenei appointed him as the head of the entity that runs the Imam Reza shrine in Iran’s holiest city, Mashad. The Astan-e Qods Razavi organisation is the wealthiest charitable foundation in Iran, with a vast business empire.

The appointment fuelled speculation that Raisi is actually being groomed not just for Iran’s second highest post, but to succeed Khamenei. Raisi’s father-in-law Alam al-Hoda, an influential cleric in Mashad, is also an old comrade-in-arms of Khamenei.

While Rouhani supporters highlight the impracticality of his populist promises and inexperience, they also widely circulate social media posts reminding the voters that Raisi was involved in the ‘prison executions’ of 1988.

The contrast between the Tehran rallies of Rouhani and Raisi could not be more stark. While the enthusiasm of Rouhani supporters got a boost from the president’s performance in the last presidential debate, the loud slogans referred to the unfulfilled promise to free Green movement leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi from house arrest, criticised state TV and raised their voice against the segregation of men and women. Unlike Raisi’s rally with separate sections, men and women sat together at Rouhani’s Azadi stadium event.

As Raisi’s women supporters traipsed past the mezzanine balcony to go down the main hall, many of them looked askance at a young woman sitting alone on a raised platform right at the back. Wearing a slim-fitting overdress on jeans, a casual scarf and grey polish on her long, manicured fingernails, 28-year-old Chantia certainly seemed out of place among the well-wrapped audience at the rally. “You don’t look like a Raisi supporter. Are you one?” some of them asked her in passing, as she smiled.

Chantia certainly had a reason to keep quiet. Among the tens of thousands of Raisi followers, she was perhaps the only Rouhani supporter. And she was at the rally on a personal mission. “I saw pictures of Raisi’s rally in Isfahan on telegram. It seemed even larger than Rouhani’s rally. That’s why I wanted to come here and see his level of support with my own eyes,” she said. As she listened to yet another religious song on the loudspeaker system, Chantia pointed out that Mashad has banned permission for all concerts. “For the next four years, we will only listen to this,” she said, laughing.

Witnessing the passion of the women at the rally, Chantia was worried. “Maybe they can win, too,” she said.

When Raisi started to speak, she got up and went closer to the balcony railing, which was already blocked by a phalanx of bodies, using elbows to try and get a view as well as an update for their social media accounts. Even though Raisi had not stopped speaking, several audience members had already started to walk out of the hall to escape the eventual crush when the event officially ended. Outside the hall, hundreds of men were listening to the live audio, as they had been unable to enter the completely full men’s section.

Khusraw, a 54-year-old retired Tehran resident, was leaving early, but he was satisfied after attending the rally that Raisi had a chance to win on May 19. “I am not worried. He has the ability to be a good manager. He managed the Imam Reza shrine well,” Khushraw said when asked about Raisi’s inexperience in governance. His opposition to Rouhani was also due to Rouhani’s diplomatic soft touch. “Imam Khamenei has said that we should always choose those whom our enemies don’t want,” he said.

A poster in Tehran announcing Raisi's "biggest convention". Credit: Devirupa Mitra

A poster in Tehran announcing Raisi’s “biggest convention”. Credit: Devirupa Mitra

After the rally by Raisi’s supporters ended by late evening, it was the turn of Rouhani’s followers – all of them young men and women – to take over the streets of central Tehran on Tuesday night. While some stood on the central verge of main roads and shouted slogans, others drove around in cars, waving the campaign flag and posters at passing vehicles.

“This is a very tight race This election for reformists is a matter of survival and principalists also seek a win. We can say both parties have deployed their entire political and social capacities for a preferred outcome,” Iranian journalist Mohammad Hashemi told The Wire.

Latest opinion surveys continue to show Rouhani as the frontrunner, but polls in Iran are notoriously unreliable. Just like the conservatives, the reformists are also consolidating their votes to avoid a run-off. While Qalibaf stepped down, Eshaq Jahangiri, first vice president, announced his support for Rouhani on Tuesday evening. Jahangiri had been expected to step aside for Rouhani, as his candidacy was mainly seen as ‘Plan B’ for the reformists in case Rouhani’s candidature was disallowed by the Guardian Council. The third reformist candidate, Mostafa Hashemitaba, has also said that he will vote for Rouhani.

Hashemi noted that while the principalists are taking advantage of their influence in the traditional sections of society, reformists draw on their civil society strength. “At the same time, Rouhani has the advantage of being the incumbent, but principalists are benefiting from their own long-established political structures,” explained Hashemi.