Iran's Reformists Poised For Election Comeback

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Kaveh L. Afrasiabi

With only three days to the presidential elections in Iran, the country's reformist camp is increasingly mobilized behind Hassan Rowhani, the sole clergy among the 8 approved candidates, which has now shrunk to 6 after the withdrawal of the conservative lawmaker Gholam Ali Hadad and the reformist former vice-president Mohammad Reza Aref.

Endorsed by two former presidents, Mohammad Khatami and Ali Akbar Rafsanjani, Rowhani, an articulate British-educated former chief nuclear negotiator during the Khatami era, has promised to prioritize Iran's national interests and revitalize Iran's struggling economy reeling under foreign sanctions.

Although he refuses to brand himself as a "reformist" (eslahtalab) and prefers to call himself "independent," Rowhani is now seeking to harvest the political capital derived from the emerging consensus in the reformist camp that he is their one and only big hope.

But is it a hope against hope? Despite the impressive turn out of enthusiastic supporters at his rallies and solid backing by the reformist media, Rowhani is still considered a long shot who may not be able to close the gap with the front runners, Tehran's mayor Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf and the head of supreme national security council, Saeed Jalili, not to mention the third conservative candidate, Ali Akbar Velayati, who was Iran's foreign minister for 16 years until 1997 and who is solidly backed by a majority of lawmakers as well as important clergy in the holy city of Qom, or Mohsen Rezai, a former revolutionary guard commander who has been receiving solid endorsements partly due to his elaborate economic plan. Between the three, Ghalibaf has the most sophisticated network of support, which he and his followers have patiently put together over the past several years. As a result, it is almost a sure bet that Ghalibaf will be one of the top vote getters come this Thursday, and the question asked by many Tehran observers is who will get the second highest votes to square off with Ghalibaf in a run off?

This question owes itself to the fact that Iran has a two-round presidential election system and to win, a candidate must secure more than 50 percent of the vote. If no candidate wins an outright majority, a runoff will be held a week later between the two candidates with the most votes in the first round. In the absence of reliable opinion polls, it is extremely difficult to predict the outcome, even though there is sufficient data to back the conclusion that there will be a second round as the six candidates split the popular votes among them.

A word of caution however. Iran's elections have been full of surprises, just as in 2005, the little-known Tehran's mayor at the time, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was not supposed to receive more than a token percentage of votes and, yet, he somehow managed to pull ahead of his rivals because of his populist appeal. Therefore, it is quite possible that the 2013 elections may carry huge surprises, such as a victory by Rowhani, irrespective of his rivals' criticisms of him as being soft toward the west. Iran's elections are after all personality-oriented, given the absence of political parties and organized party politics, and the dormant lure of reformist politics, held at bay since the post-election controversies of the last election in June 2009, may well culminate in the outpouring of mass support for Rowhani on Thursday.

Certainly, a Rowhani victory would be tantamount to a successful political realignment featuring the electoral alliance of moderate conservatives, identified with Rafsanjani and the Constructionist (Kargozaran) Party, with the reformist camp headed by Khatami, who has been singularly responsible for convincing Areh to withdraw (despite the opposition by some rank and file reformists).

"The unity of Aref and Rowhani brings joy to the heart of society," Khatami has been quoted in the media, a clear sign that despite all the talks of "election engineering" from the top, Khatami has been most instrumental in causing a timely alliance unforeseen in the past. Still, for the voter turn out to swing in their direction, Rowhani and his reformist backers must convince the voters that he offers a better prescription to tackle the serious challenges facing Iran today, above all the nuclear challenge.

Regarding the latter, the foreign minister Ali Akbar Salehi has rightly pointed out that the Supreme Leader makes the ultimate nuclear decisions and the current nuclear policy will continue no matter who wins. True, yet no one can deny the potential differences that a more conciliatory president can make with respect to the nuclear standoff, in light of Rowhani's track record in striking a (temporary) deal with the Europeans during his term as nuclear negotiator (2003-2005).

To open a caveat here, during that period, this author was a senior researcher at Rowhani's think tank, Center For Strategic Research, and was able to observe first-hand Rowhani's authoritative style of leadership and prudent decision-making that invariably was based on informed feedback by a lower echelon of highly-educated policy experts. As Iran's next president, Rowhani is apt to "rationalize" the executive branch and subject its decisions to collective and deliberative processes stemming from the organic input of experts, diplomats, and bureaucrats, as well as politicians from different political orientations.

Indeed, the trend toward a more inclusive and expansive political process is unmistakable. Even Ghalibaf has pledged to form a cabinet that includes several of his current competitors including Jalili, Hadad, and Velayati. Ghalibaf's first challenge, however, is to defeat these candidates on June 14th and then plot the sequel act of how to incorporate them in his future administration? No matter who wins in this competitive, albeit restrictive, race, one thing is clear however: the defeated camp of Iran's reformists are suddenly afforded a brand new opportunity to resurface and make a decent run for presidential power, i.e., a new round of popular mobilization that is bound to deepen the political process and add to the system's legitimacy, which was badly bruised at the last elections. In other words, despite all its shortcomings, the 2013 presidential race has been a healthy one that has reinvigorated the demoralized reformists, who are also competing in the simultaneous elections for city and village councils. In a precious few days, we shall know the answer to the question of whether or not Iran's reformist somehow compensated for their 2009 loss in 2013?

*Kaveh L. Afrasiabi is a former political science professor at Tehran University and former adviser to Iran's nuclear negotiation team (2004 to 2006). He is the author of After Khomeini: New Directions in Iran's Foreign Policy (Westview Press) . Afrasiabi is author of Reading In Iran Foreign Policy After September 11 (BookSurge Publishing , October 23, 2008) and Looking for Rights at Harvard. His latest book is UN Management Reform: Selected Articles and Interviews on United Nations CreateSpace (November 12, 2011).

Source: Middle East Online

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*These views represent those of the author and are not necessarily Iran Review's viewpoints.

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