External Affairs

Rouhani vs Raisi: As Iran Votes, Here’s a Guide to the Key Issues at Stake

A high voter turnout in urban areas, where 70% of the population resides, is being seen as key to Hassan Rouhani’s re-election. But in rural areas, where voting turnout is typically high, Ebrahim Raisi’s platform of economic misery and more cash-handouts could find a resonance.

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Will Hassan Rouhani secure a second term as president or will Ebrahim Raisi succeed him? Credit: Reuters

Tehran: Iranians started casting their votes today to directly choose the next president of the Islamic republic, after a bruising three-week campaign where incumbent President Hassan Rouhani faced a surprisingly tough fight from conservative candidate Ebrahim Raisi, who espoused populist economic policies. Voting started at 8 am Iran time with the first vote cast by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei.  It was shown live on TV and broadcast on radio. Before he cast his vote, the Ayatollah said the elections were a big event for the nation.

From a poll of 1636 candidates who registered to contest the polls, the Guardian Council chose six on April 20. Election campaigning officially began on April 21, with social media, especially Telegram and Instagram, playing a big role. The total electorate is 56,410,234.

What’s at stake

The election will be highly critical in determining how the world views Iran.

In hierarchy, the president stands second in protocol after the supreme leader. While the supreme leader has vast powers, the president also has some room to manoeuvre.

Rouhani has stood for opening up the country from its isolation, which has substantial pull among the young and the middle class. Raisi, on the other hand, touts ‘jihadi management’ of the economy, which, from his remarks, appears to be largely populist measures like tripling the monthly cash handouts and creating jobs.

The economy has been projected as Rouhani’s main weakness by his opponents. However, the unhappiness seems to be stemming from unmet high expectations that came with the removal of many sanctions under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The nuclear deal was touted as the first step in the transformation of the Iranian economy, with visions of foreign investment instantly rushing in. The reality was far different, with the remaining non-nuclear US sanctions deterring most international banks from dealing with Iran.

In 2016-17, the economy rebounded with a GDP growth rate over 6% and inflation has come to single figures. However, unemployment remains high at 12.5%, impacting the aspirations of the young.

Armed with his populist promises, Raisi attacked Rouhani on his ‘pleading diplomacy’ – a reference to the negotiations over JCPOA, which is commonly known by its Persian acronym Barjam within Iran. Changing campaign tactics, Rouhani stridently attacked the conservative-dominated security and clerical establishment for attempting to sabotage the nuclear deal.

Nearly all opinion polls have shown Rouhani as the frontrunner, but the campaign had become increasingly more bitter in week before the vote.

A smooth transition of power is necessary for Iran’s stability at this crucial juncture, when it is seemingly surrounded in West Asia by hostile Sunni Arab states and Israel, and is being targeted by the Trump administration in the US. European nations, who have remained loyal to the JCPOA, are anxiously watching the elections, hoping that Rouhani will secure a second term. According to sources, several European firms are waiting in the wings for a ‘favourable’ election result to enter the Iranian market.

According to observers, there are also big economic interests behind the resistance to opening the doors to foreign investment. The deep state security organisations operate big economic empires, which they feel could get imperilled by the entry of foreign firms, thereby fuelling the establishment opposition to Rouhani.

Why it has been an interesting election

Since the Islamic Revolution, all presidents who stood for a second term have won the election. The closest it came to a president being defeated was in 2009 with Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, but he was ultimately declared the winner after a controversial vote count.

Until a few months ago, questions were being raised about whether there would be a credible conservative candidate to compete against Rouhani, who seemed ready to glide into another four-year term. Therefore, the emergence of Raisi has come as a surprise. Despite not being well known, he has been able to unite the conservative camp behind him – with the other two hardline candidates, Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf and Mostafa Aqa-Mirsalim, also endorsing him.

While Raisi has been in the judiciary for decades, he has only held a high-profile public office for just over an year, after he was appointed to the wealthiest charitable endowment fund, Astan-e Qods Razavi, which operates the Imam Reza shrine in the holy city of Mashhad.

Raisi’s appointment by the supreme leader raised eyebrows and led to speculation that he was being groomed to succeed him. However, with no executive experience, Raisi’s career in the judiciary and the wide belief of him being a direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammed may not have been enough to get him the Islamic Republic’s top post, which is for lifetime. Therefore, the grapevine goes, a presidential term was needed to burnish his credentials.

Interestingly, the election campaign seemingly turned tables – with Raisi running as a populist establishment candidate, while Rouhani campaigned like an outsider taking on the political system, despite being the consummate insider. For 16 years, Rouhani had been the secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, described as the “nerve centre” for security coordination in Iran.

The combative campaign had led to a relaxation in the language used and subjects broached by both sides.

Why voter turnout is critical

The key pressure point for the Rouhani campaign will be the voter turnout. A high voter turnout is being seen as key to his re-election, especially in urban areas where nearly 70% of Iran’s population reside. In rural areas, where voting percentage is high, Raisi’s campaign platform of economic misery and more cash-handouts could find a resonance. According to some quarters, Rouhani would be in a safe place if there was a 55% turnout in urban areas. The interior ministry has predicted a voter turnout of 72%. In 2013, the voter turnout was 76.25%.

When will the results be declared?

The Iranian interior ministry announced a day before polling that the results will be declared “gradually,” rather than “at once” as had been mentioned by the interior minister Abdolreza Rahmani-Fazli the day before. The results are expected to be announced by May 20 night, at the latest.

In 2009, results had swung widely as the vote counts started to trickle in from various parts of the country, which led to massive protests by the Green movement alleging electoral malpractice.

With only two credible candidates left, the decision on the next president is expected to be made in the first round itself. If no one secures more than 50% of the vote, the two candidates will go for a run-off next Friday (May 26).

What does it mean for India?

None of the candidates have articulated any foreign policy vision in this election, which was mainly dominated by economic issues.

However, according to diplomatic observers, India will face an indirect impact from the Iran election, if the results lead to any instability in the region. An election of a conservative candidate could lead to more sabre-rattling in Washington, which could spook the global community.

Besides that, official sources say that India’s relations with Iran are on a stable path, with the development of the Chabahar port, North-South corridor and oil fields leading to converging economic interests.