Iranian Presidential Elections: An Overview


On May 19th, Iran holds a Presidential Election deemed as critical for the future of the Islamic Republic. There is a lot at stake as this election will determine whether the path of normalization within the international arena is going to continue. In addition, the Presidential Election is especially important because it will influence future elections (Iran holds direct election for different administrative bodies), and more importantly it will, in all likelihood, be decisive in the appointment of the next Supreme Leader (current Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is allegedly terminally ill). Undoubtedly, such a critical moment may reverberate throughout the Middle East and the international sphere. Therefore, May 19th will deliver the distribution of power among the most influential groups for the crucial times to come. Western media often depicts Iranian politics as a power struggle between conservatives or hardliners and moderates or reformists, but the reality is unquestionably much more complex, and the binary paradigm seems to fail when trying to understand the differences between conservative candidates or drawing prospects from Iran’s political scene. The main power structures are the clergy, technocrats, and military or security forces. Therefore the different set of allegiances between them are key in shaping Iran’s domestic and foreign policies.

Iran’s political system is indeed very complex, and encompasses an interconnected set of councils and political influences that are normally dismissed by the Western media. Iran is a hybrid of theocracy and parliamentary democracy. The President is not the highest ranking official. The Shia clergy possesses an important influence due to the Constitution of Iran, and although the President is the head of the executive branch, the executive is circumscribed by the authority of the Supreme Leader and the clergy. For instance it is the Supreme Leader who controls the Armed Forces. Regarding the legislative power, the Parliament is elected every 4 years. However, the legislative power of parliament is also influenced by the clergy because each bill or decree must also be approved by the Guardian Council. Comprising of 12 members elected every six years, the Guardian Council is elected by the Supreme Leader, who presents 6 members, and another 6 members are presented by the Judiciary and approved by Parliament. On the other hand, the Judiciary enforces and defines legal policy and has often been an instrument used by hardline clerics against reformist figures. Finally, the Supreme Leader is selected by the Assembly of Experts of the Leadership, in which all members are directly elected, after a vetting process by the Guardian Council, and approved by the Supreme Leader. In a nutshell, intertwined councils and laws make sure indirectly that the Supreme Leader and the clergy have authority over the Iranian political system.

The Iranian political system clearly has limitations for meaningful reforms, and thus Iranians vote on the basis of reasonable changes within the current complex structure. Regardless of the elected President, power structures are heavily influenced by conservatives through the Judiciary and security apparatus. In this manner, although Iran holds free Presidential Elections, the Guardian Council exercises a vetting power. Nonetheless once a candidate is approved, the process of elections is free and fair, with the notable exception of 2009 when then President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad suspiciously won the election, and claims of rigged elections against Mir-Hossein Mousavi prompted widespread protests. The tensions brought prominent figures as Mousavi in house arrest ever since.

Although international factors may play an important role on the race for the Presidency, the internal factors may be the key driver. Internally it is often the case the progressive urban middle classes focus on political freedoms or human rights, and individuals from rural areas tent to centre the attention to family values and faith. After the first Presidential debate last Friday, the most influential issues to take into account for the elections are about the state of the economy and the Nuclear Deal. The Nuclear Deal is regarded as necessary for the improvement of the socio-economic standards, however the real transfer of those potential benefits are not yet evident for many Iranians. At first sight, President Hassan Rouhani seems to have the upper-hand since the nuclear accord changed the status of Iran from being isolated as an outcast within the international arena to being able to sit and negotiate at the table with world powers. In addition, last year’s parliamentary elections brought a success for the reformist factions. Nevertheless, external threats and alleged weakness in negotiating the nuclear accord will be used by conservatives so as to gather support behind them. However, this election is unlikely to disrupt the foreign policy in a profound way if agreements are fulfilled by the other end of the deal.

The reformist-moderate alliance between technocrats and the clergy has not been yet fractured, despite this their success depends upon high turnout and specially the women and young vote. Mobilization of women and young vote has historically been the key for moderate and reformist victories. Women are fundamental to understand the Iranian elections, Iran has numerous female vice-presidents, ministers or MPs. In Iran, a candidate cannot win ignoring women’s concerns or underestimating their interests. On the other hand youth is the largest population bloc in Iran, around 60% are under 30 years old, and notably Iranian youth are very active politically. Therefore the result of the election relies heavily in the turnout from these 2 groups. History shows high turnouts brings reformist victories, for instance Mohammad Khatami won in 1997 when turnout was 80%. On the other hand when the turnout is low elections deliver a hardliner, for example in 2005 Mahmoud Ahmadinejad took over when only 60% of the electorate cast a vote.

Regarding the front-runners in the election, the incumbent Hassan Rouhani will certainly fight for a second term. Rouhani administration is a mix of moderate clerics and technocrats that have struck the nuclear deal, and has made possible the beginning of diplomatic relations with the EU and US. Many elements of the Iranian society see Rouhani administration as ideal so as to continue developing international relations and lift of economic sanctions completely, re-integrating the regime into the global economy. On the other hand, Ayatollah Ebrahim Raisi is the figure supported by the most conservative elements of the Islamic Republic, and likely a hardliner’s option as Khamenei’s successor. Raisi represents the alliance of the conservative elements of the clergy and the military forces. The last frontrunner is the mayor of Tehran and former commander of the Revolutionary Guards, Mohammad-Bagher Ghalibaf. He represents a mix of security forces and technocrats. The rest of the candidates are: Eshaq Jahangiri, first deputy (first vice president) and close ally of Rouhani. Former Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance Mostafa Mirsalim and former Minister of Physical Education Mostafa Hashemi Taba. Remarkably this presidential election may be a struggle for the succession of Khamenei as Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic. Therefore the real prize may be the highest ranking position in the Iranian administration. As aforementioned, Raisi is a possible challenger, and Rouhani is likely to have in mind to position himself for the race. Therefore this is possibly the most crucial moment for Iranian politics in recent times.