After enduring almost two years of incessant presidential politics in the United States, I must say that I am not really looking forward to yet another prolonged race, this time in Iran. But the reality is that the campaign for the presidency of Iran, to be decided on 12 June 2009 or a few weeks later if the contest again goes to the second round, has already become heated, even if the picture regarding who and how many will actually end up being candidates is still far from clear.
The fact that Iran is into full presidential mode this early is rather unusual for an election that almost certainly will involve a candidate who is an incumbent running for his second term. Iranian presidents are limited to two four year terms but asides from the two early and very short-term presidents, who were either impeached and subsequently forced into exile (Abolhassan Banisadr) or assassinated (Mohammad Ali Rajai), two term presidencies have been the norm since the presidential election of Ali Khamenei, Iran’s current supreme leader, in 1981.
In fact, Iran’s last three presidents (Khamenei, Hashemi Rafsanjani, and Khatami) were not significantly challenged in their second runs and no one entertained the possibility that they might not be re-elected. Even Khatami, whose candidacy was in doubt for a very short period of time because of his own frustration in pushing his reform agenda, no one really doubted that he would be re-elected in 2001 once he decided to run.
This election will be, and one might even say is already, different. To be sure, few doubt that Ahmadinejad will run and he will be the man to beat. As I mentioned above, even in the short history of the Islamic republic, there are things that have become part of the norm or tradition and as elsewhere traditions are hard to break. At the same time, the extent to which Ahmadinejad’s mismanagement of the economy and his office has become part of the Iranian political discourse, I think, is unprecedented. This is why, for the first time the possibility that a president running for the second term may face serious challenge is openly discussed and contemplated. With the drop in oil prices and the specter of larger than expected budget deficits for the current fiscal year, talks of Ahmadinejad’s wrong-headed policies as well as incompetence are bound to intensify.
So far only one person – Mehdi Karrubi of the National Trust Party - has openly declared his candidacy with the proviso that he might step aside if something like a council of mediating elders among the reformist and centrist forces settles for another candidate deemed more likely to be elected. Few believe that he will do so and his insistence on running may ultimately be the most important card he has in forcing the hand of the reformists to support him at the end.
Given the history of verbal acrimony between the reformists and Karrubi - who as the Speaker of the Sixth Parliament refused to support the sit-in of reformist deputies when they were disqualified by the Guardian Council to stand for re-election - members of the reformist Islamic Iran’s Participation Party and Islamic Revolution’s Mojahedin will undoubtedly be holding their noses if they ultimately decide to side with Karrubi. But this is a decision they will have to contemplate knowing very well that only agreement among centrist and reformist forces over one candidate will enhance their chances.
In a recent and very interesting interview on October 8 with Etemaad Daily, Alireza Alavi Tabar, one of Iran’s most interesting political analysts and a reformist, suggested that in order to win the reformists need to garner at least 5 million more votes than their opponents (about 45 million are eligible to vote and in the first round of the last presidential election close to 30 million voted). According to his analysis, 5 million is the maximum number of votes that can be manipulated in Iran.
It is improbable that this 13 to 14 percent vote manipulation hurdle can be overcome in the likely scenario of only about 50 to 60 percent of eligible voters participating in the election. Improbability however is bound to turn into certainty if reformist and centrist groups enter the election with multiple candidates. Without compromise meager reformist and centrist chances will turn into nil.
But the election is still seven months away and the reformists are not yet in the mood for compromise. Their clamor for the past couple of months has been to convince former president Khatami to run. But he has remained rather coy about his intentions and I personally will be very surprised if he decides to run for a couple of reasons.
Most importantly is the fact that he is not crazy and ambitious enough to put himself through the abuse and obstacles that he will have to face both in running and governing. Someone with a good sense of humor said a while back that the difference between Khatami supporters and Khatami is that they think about the Election Day while he thinks about the day after the election! I think this is about right although the amount of mud which will be thrown at him during the campaign will not be insignificant either.
Khatami has developed something quite rare in Iran: respect as a former statesman who remains politically engaged without holding office and speaks truth to power. Just yesterday he blasted the government by saying “Looking at official slogans, one gets the impression that this is a country of flowers and nightingales in which there are no rising prices, unemployment, poverty, corruption and prostitution.” He went on to say that he considers the most important duty of the president to be the execution of the Constitution; an obvious dig at the current occupant of the office who was just accused on national television, no less, by his own former interior minister and the current head of the government’s audit office to have improperly withdrawn money from Iran’s foreign exchange reserves without the required parliamentary approval.
To make the story short, I think giving up the position of an elder and trusted statesman will be hard for Khatami and his family. He will only do so, as he said publicly, if he receives assurances from a wide spectrum of people, including some well-known conservatives or so-called principlists, that his next attempt at presidency will be different.
Considering that in the chaotic and highly competitive political environment of Iran such assurances are almost impossible to come by, a Khatami candidacy can essentially be considered a non-starter. Of course, in making this assertion I am not totally rejecting the possibility that he may run but essentially echoing the words of the well known Iranian analyst Abbas Abdi who suggested a while back that if Khatami does run he will do so only with the confidence that he will win; a highly unlikely scenario.
Lacking this confidence, Khatami’s second reason for not running is tactical. He knows that the principlists are divided over Ahmadinejad’s presidency. The question of support for Ahmadinejad is not settled for them yet and there are other conservative or center-right candidates – such as Tehran mayor Mohammad Qalibaf, former chief nuclear negotiator Hassan Rowhani, and even former interior minister Mustafa Purmohammadi - who are contemplating runs along with perennial presidential aspirants like parliamentary deputy Ahmad Tavakoli and former commander of Islamic Revolution’s Guard Corps Mohsen Rezaie. Some principlist politicians, including one hard-line parliamentary deputy, have talked about conditional support for Ahmadinejad provided he retracts from some of his recent policies and appointments. Others have simply said that so far there is no agreed upon principlist candidate. In short, it is not yet clear whether there will be one or several candidates representing the principlist camp.
But if Khatami runs, given his relative popularity, principlist equivocation will probably give way and there will be tremendous pressure on all factions to the right of the political spectrum to close rank behind Ahmadinejad who after all is the current president and, given his name recognition, will have the best chance of winning in a manipulated competition against Khatami.
Even if it is not true, this will be the case Ahmadinejad’s supporters will be making to all principlists from now until the election. The hard-line Kayhan Daily has already gone there in its 16 October editorial, warning all principlists that “the replacement for the current administration, if it has to go, is not going to be a principlist individual but someone outside the [principlist] current.”
The mere fact that Kayhan has to warn the principlist camp about the possibility of reformist revival in order to marshal support for Ahmadinejad is by itself a reflection of the trouble the president is facing in his standing among the Iranian elite. Just to give a few examples, in the past week or so Hassan Rowhani publicly blasted him twice for losing opportunities generated by unprecedented high oil prices and U.S. troubles in Iraq and not buttressing Iran’s foreign exchange reserves in order to cushion against the shock that the Iranian economy will face as oil prices fall.
Furthermore, Ahmadinejad’s Economic Transformation Plan that includes reform of the tax and subsidy systems among other things has been questioned for being at best undeveloped and at worst highly inflationary and disruptive. Even in situations where his administration has really not been at fault, such as the parliamentary mandated implementation of a value added tax on Iranian merchants which was resisted through bazaar strikes, his administration has been criticized for giving insufficient information to merchants who, it was said, would not have opposed the tax had they understood it better.
The Iranian parliament, under the leadership of Ali Larijani, has also already signaled that it will not easily give in to Ahmadinejad’s announced desire to give cash subsidies (somewhere between $40 to $80 monthly depending on income brackets) to the majority of Iranians beginning early next year or right before the June election. Some members of the parliament have deemed the giveaway inflationary while others have been less charitable, identifying it as election bribe.
Larijani, himself, explicitly stated yesterday that he will not run for president. When asked whether he will be willing to do so if called upon to serve, he said “so far there has not been a call to duty and rest assured that there are many others in the arena that will make such things unnecessary.” Despite his avowed lack of interest, however, he did not miss the chance to point out that given the financial troubles of the world which will impact Iran also, Islamic Iran should begin its fourth decade with a new “political logic” that avoids the extremisms of both the left and the right and rely on all the ‘managerial capabilities” that exist in the country among the reformists and principlists.
No doubt this should be considered a statement of dissatisfaction with Ahmadinejad who is constantly accused of only relying on a small circle of advisors. But even more generally it should be considered an expression of the yearning for going beyond the extreme divisiveness that has characterized Iranian politics in the past decade but has been particularly fanned during Ahmadinejad’s presidency. In this context, the new “political logic” simply means a logic that creates a space for a less dysfunctional political system.
Ultimately the issue for principlists critical of Ahmadinejad is not dissatisfaction with the current occupier of the office or the current state of affairs - they are clearly dissatisfied, but whether it is possible to dislodge him from office without risking the possibility of a reformist win. For them the best scenario entails the prospect of a crowded field that will open the way for a second round confrontation between Ahmadinejad and a more centrist, and presumably more competent, principlist candidate who will at the end emerge victorious.
Given Iran’s hyper-politicized environment, this scenario is not easy to implement. But the machinations in Iran’s various political camps to devise a game plan that will lead to electoral victory, while being mindful of Ahmadinejad’s concrete failures, will keep the Iranian political dynamics fluid for the next seven months.
This fluidity in turn will keep the business of speculation about who will actually run for the president quite robust until May when the registration deadline for candidacy arrives. Among the candidates discussed none is likely to be vetted but who knows by the time May comes who else might appear on the scene.
These dynamics should be considered part and parcel of a competitive political system that doesn’t have a well or even minimally developed party system and relies on constant negotiations and shifting positions among contending and at the same time intersecting elite factions. It is going to be a long, chaotic, and in all likelihood ugly campaign.