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Iran election 2017 Middle East Iran

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Iran presidential election: what is at stake?

Incumbent president and frontrunner Hasan Rouhani Reuters/Faisal Mahmood/File Photo

Voters in Iran go to the polls to elect a new president on 19 May. Six candidates have been selected to compete and incumbent President Hasan Rouhani is leading the polls by a wide margin. But in the last few weeks his lead has been narrowing and it is now not sure if he will win more than 50 percent in the first round, making a second round possible.

  • Who are the candidates?

The candidates were approved by the 12-member Guardian Council of the Constitution that consists of six faqihs, experts in Islamic law appointed by the Supreme Leader, the Grand Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei, and six jurists elected by the Iranian parliament, the Majlis. On 27 April the council selected six candidates from a list of over 1,600.

Just weeks before that decision was taken, former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad caused a stir by his announcement that he wanted to run. But the Guardian Council decided against him and in the end incumbent President Hassan Rouhani (election slogan: “Again Iran, Again Rouhani”) faces Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf (“People’s government”), Mostafa Hasemitaba (“Keep Iran”), Eshaq Jahangiri (“All for Iran”), Mostafa Mirsalim (“Reality and integrity”) and Ebrahim Raisi (“Government of dignity and work”).

The election is polarised with Jahangiri, Hashemitaba and Rouhani in the pro-administration, reformist camp and at the other end of the spectrum the conservative Raisi, Ghalibaf and Mirsalim.

According to polls taken by International Perspectives for Public Opinion on May 10, Rouhani still leads with about 55 percent of the votes, followed by Raisi and Ghalibaf with both just over 20 percent and the other three candidates virtually stable at 5 percent.

Raisi’s star seems to have been rising since March 2016, when he was appointed to run one of Iran’s wealthiest charities, Astan Quds Razavi. Since then a petition signed by 50 of the 88 members of the influential Council of Experts, as well as the conservative Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi, supported Raisi’s candidacy.

If Rouhani will have just under 50 percent or less, a second round victory is far from guaranteed. Tehran’s foreign ministry is already preparing for a second round: it has instructed embassies to announce they may be closed on 26 May 26, the date when the final electoral standoff would take place.

  • It’s the economy, stupid!

The main bone of contention is the economy.

In the outside world Rouhani is widely seen as the man who managed to strike a deal with the West over the nuclear issue under which, after a long period of bargaining, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany (the P5 plus 1) agreed with Iran to a partial lifting of sanctions in exchange for a drastic reduction of its nuclear programme.

Both conservative forces, surrounding Ayatollah Ali Khameni, and the reformists seem to agree that the deal should remain in place.

But they seem to differ on how to take the economy forward. Rouhani seems more willing to liberalise the economy, inviting foreign businesses to invest and generally relaxing rules on contacts with Western countries, which have already led to multi-billion dollar deals.

Raisi and his allies seem to be more cautious and may be tempted to put a halt to large Rouhani projects, such as the Iranian Petroleum Contract that meant opening up the oil sector to foreign investment.

Critics say that Raisi, who has been working as Iran’s attorney general, deputy chief justice and head of the General Inspection Office, does not have enough experience with complicated economic issues and won’t be able to steer Iran back from the economic abyss it found itself in after the decade of stifling sanctions. Rouhani’s critics counter that in the one and a half years since the nuclear deal, not enough has been done to allow ordinary people to benefit from it.

In the end, major policy shifts are not to be expected, as the supreme leader and the Council of Guardians, that functions as a de facto supreme court, have the last word in any policy decision.

  • The Great Satan

A complicating factor is the election of US President Donald Trump, whom many Iranian observers see as erratic.

They believe he could scrap the hard-won nuclear deal and unlikely to lift scores of still existing sanctions any time soon, thus giving fodder to critics of the deal with “The Great Satan”, as the US is still commonly called, and its allies in Europe and elsewhere.