In a fight for his political life in May 19 elections, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is donning a reformist mantle in an effort to attract the votes of disillusioned youth and to defeat conservatives who have coalesced around a single candidate.
Rouhani, who won the presidency in 2013 in part because he faced a divided conservative field, now confronts one main opponent – conservative cleric Ebrahim Raisi – after Tehran mayor Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf withdrew from the race on Monday.
In a poll taken before Qalibaf’s withdrawal, the Washington based IPPO Group found that 53 percent of likely voters would vote for Rouhani, 23 percent for Qalibaf and 22 percent for Raisi. Three candidates did not have significant support, including Es’haq Jahangiri, Rouhani’s vice president, who withdrew Tuesday in favor of Rouhani.
While the polling may have provided the Rouhani camp with some encouragement, any optimism should be tempered with caution. A quarter of the respondents were undecided and 22 percent did not disclose a preference. The Qalibaf withdrawal adds new uncertainty to the election outcome.
It is likely that a major portion of Qalibaf’s supporters will gravitate toward Raisi, a former student of Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Raisi, relatively unknown until recently, is being groomed by the deep state to succeed Khamenei.
Given that the combined percentage of those preferring Qalibaf and Raisi closely tracked that for Rouhani, the conservatives have a chance to push the contest to a run-off and beat Rouhani in a second round.
The conservatives are counting on help from Iran’s national television and radio, which are controlled by the hardliners. The two organizations have been doing everything in their power to harm Rouhani and promote Raisi. For example, they selectively broadcast the replay of the candidates’ debates, made negative comments regarding Rouhani’s statements and presented “analysis” over who had the upper hand that took the side of Rouhani’s rivals in an obvious manner.
It was in response to this approach that Rouhani, in a May 13 fiery speech, said, “The era when [the national] TV and radio could dominate the people’s mind is over. By expanding the communication systems’ infrastructure … we will let each and every young person to play the role of TV and radio station with their cell phones.”
Social media and various computer apps that are popular among Iranians are providing a venue for the Rouhani campaign to fight back and present alternative messages.
A pillar of the establishment throughout his long political career, Rouhani has donned the mantle of a reformist as the odds of his re-election narrow. In doing so, he appears to be seeking to occupy the space of the late Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Iran’s former president and Rouhani’s patron, who died in January.
Rafsanjani turned against the deep state after the disputed 2009 elections, which led to unprecedented protests and the emergence of the Green Movement. Two presidential candidates – Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi – rejected the results; both have been under house arrest since 2011 and slogans in support of their freedom are being chanted at Rouhani campaign rallies.
The conservative establishment has also sought to excommunicate former president Mohammad Khatami, who was labeled as one of the leaders of the “sedition” – the name given to the Green Movement by the conservatives. The official Iranian media has been banned from publishing statements and images of Khatami but that has not stopped the former president from broadcasting an endorsement of Rouhani through cell phone apps and social media.
Khamenei drew a red line stating that whoever supported the seditionists could not be given any responsibility in the power structure. “My positions about the sedition of the [Iranian calendar] year 1388  are fully clear and I am sensitive to this issue, and the yardstick is refraining from supporting those who spearheaded the sedition or those who took advantage of it and have not yet disavowed it,” he remarked in 2016.
Taking a high risk, Rouhani has verbally crossed Khamenei’s red lines during his campaign. In his May 13 remarks, Rouhani said,
[During my presidency] I only wrote one letter to the judiciary. In that letter, I asked, based on which law and which rationale, “have you banned Khatami appearing in the media?” To the cheers of his supporters, Rouhani added, “The reform [movement] will not be isolated. … Let us say hello to reform. Let us say hello to Seyyed Mohammad Khatami.
On another occasion, at a rally on May 8, he said, “The people of Iran will once again announce that they don’t accept those who only knew of the executions and imprisonment for 38 years.” He was clearly referring to Raisi who, until a year ago, was a high ranking member of the judiciary and was involved in approving the execution of thousands of political prisoners in the summer of 1988.
Rouhani appears to be hoping that he can mobilize undecided voters by taking this pro-reformist stance. However, many Iranians may question the depth of Rouhani’s convictions and his ability to challenge deep state institutions in a second term, when Iranian presidents are traditionally weaker than in their first terms.
The president’s approach also risks further alienating low-income voters. While a large faction of society struggles financially and unemployment, particularly among the youth, is rampant, Rouhani has said that his campaign slogan is, “First, freedom of speech, second, security, and third, development.”
This is in sharp contrast to the strategy adopted by Raisi, who has adopted a populist stance concentrating on the income gap and offering to triple cash subsidies to the poor. The approach may be economically unrealistic – parliament speaker Ali Larijani has said that economy cannot afford it — but could buy a significant number of votes in rural and poor urban areas given widespread disillusionment with the economic benefits brought by Iran’s nuclear agreement with world powers.
In an April poll, in response to the question of “to what degree President Rouhani has or has not been successful in resolving the country’s economic problems?” 37 percent thought that he was somewhat successful, while 55 percent believed that he was somewhat or very unsuccessful.
The vote on Friday will test whether Iranians are willing to give the incumbent another chance to make good on his promises.
Shahir Shahidsaless is an Iranian-Canadian political analyst and freelance journalist writing about Iranian domestic and foreign affairs, the Middle East and the US foreign policy in the region. He is the co-author of Iran and the United States: An Insider’s View on the Failed Past and the Road to Peace.