Election preview: Iran

Iran goes to the polls later today, with incumbent Hassan Rouhani seeking – and expected to get – a second four-year term as president.

Iran’s constitutional structure is unique; it is basically a theocracy with some of the trappings of a presidential democracy. The Supreme Leader, currently Ali Khamenei, wields (as the name suggests) ultimate power, but the routine functions of government are in the hands of a president and his cabinet, while there is also an elected parliament for legislation.

If you think of a partly constitutionalised monarchy (such as Liechtenstein, which we looked at a while back), where an elected government shares power uneasily with an unelected head of state, you’d be on the right track, but in Iran you have the added complication of the separation of powers between president and parliament.

Rouhani was elected surprisingly comfortably in 2013, taking 52.5% of the vote against five opponents. His nearest rival, Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, managed only 17.1%. If no candidate has a first round majority, a second round will be held next week, although this has only happened once before, in 2005. (Note that apparently the winner needs a majority of the total vote, including informals; on that basis, Rouhani had 50.7% last time.)

Rouhani is a moderate, as opposed to Khamenei’s more hard-line conservatism. The relationship between them, however, has not been as stormy as might have been expected. In particular, Rouhani’s signature achievement, the nuclear deal with the west, has been the subject of grumbling but not actual sabotage from Khamenei and his allies.

The downside of that lack of conflict has been that Rouhani has been unable to achieve much in terms of domestic liberalisation, which has harmed his approval ratings. Economic conditions have shown some improvement, although things clearly remain pretty dire for many people. But polls still suggest that most Iranians prefer to persevere with the reformist track, however sluggish it seems.

The carnage in nearby Syria has also been a good advertisement for the virtues of gradualism.

The remarkable number of 1,636 Iranians put their names forward to run for president this time, but the Guardian Council (controlled by Khamenei) whittled that down to six, excluding even such high-profile figures as former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Two of those six have since withdrawn, including former runner-up Ghalibaf, and another two are not given any serious chance. (One of them, Mostafa Hashemi Taba, has actually endorsed Rouhani.)

For all practical purposes it will be a straight fight between Rouhani and conservative challenger Ebrahim Raisi, a close ally of Khamenei. No sitting president has ever been defeated seeking a second term and Rouhani starts a firm favorite, but there is a widespread expectation that Raisi will run him close.

Khamenei is now 77; if the moderates are ever going to wrest actual control of government from the conservatives, they need to have as strong a hand as possible going into the battle for the succession. A decisive victory by Rouhani tonight would be an important step.

On past performance, expect results to appear sometime late tomorrow.

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