Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Iran’s Presidential Election Becomes a Two-Man Race

Farideh Farhi

Although some news outlets prematurely announced his candidacy last week, former IRGC commander Mohsen Rezaie officially entered Iran’s presidential race today.

Despite his entry, the contest is increasingly looking like a two-man race between the current president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and former prime minister Mir-Hossein Mussavi. The race, the official registration for which will begin on May 5th, also looks highly contested with both sides, particularly Ahmadinejad, hoping to avoid a runoff election by getting more than 50 percent of the vote in the first round.

The initial expectations for this presidential race were different. Given the reformist weakness and lack of access to resources, the anticipation was that Ahmadinejad’s only real challenge would come from the conservative ranks, some of whom are increasingly unhappy with his expansionist economic policies and erratic management style. Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, Tehran’s current mayor, was perceived as the most likely conservative candidate given his relative popularity in the city of Tehran and his rather tense relationship with the president over issues connected to the metropolis.

Mir-Hossein Mussavi’s entry into the race and the organizational support he has received from reformist organizations across the board changed the dynamics of the race, finally forcing several hesitant conservative coalitions and organizations to join hard core Ahmadinejad supporters and come out publicly in his support as the unity candidate of the so-called principlist camp.

At the end of the day, support for Ahmadinejad had nothing to do with his personality or policies and had everything to do with electoral numbers and the political realities on the ground.

A significant conservative challenge to Ahmadinejad was made impossible by his refusal to step aside if conservative activists chose another candidate and the perception that Mussavi will be able to pick up a good chunk of the anti-Ahmadinejad vote.

Qalibaf - a man with serious presidential aspirations who already lost a presidential election in 2005 - could not afford risking another loss by competing against both Ahmadinejad and Mussavi and endangering his chances for future elections. And this calculation ultimately became the reason for his refusal to run on his own. Reported attempts to make him a co-runner in a president/vice-president team with others such as former foreign minister Ali Akbar Velayati also failed.

To be sure, Mohsen Rezaie is a conservative running against Ahmadinejad because of his stated dissatisfaction with the state of the country. But given lack of support from conservative organizations, he is unlikely to pose a serious challenge to either Ahmadinejad or Mussavi. The most his candidacy can do is to give cover to prominent conservatives who do not want to support Ahmadinejad by allowing them to maintain their impartiality in the contest between the two conservative candidates.

It is no secret that good portions of the principlist camp have been unhappy with Ahmadinejad and this showed in their rather late and begrudging endorsement. Conflicts abound within the camp and there is no guarantee that they will go away by election time.

Ultimately, however, this week’s endorsement of the Followers and Leadership and Imam Front, a coalition of 14 conservative groups led by more traditional conservative groups such as the bazaar-based Islamic Coalition Party and Islamic Engineers Society signaled the calculation that Ahmadinejad is the only candidate who can keep the presidency in the conservative column.

Interestingly, the clerical counterpart in the traditional conservative camp, the Society of Combatant Clergy, has so far refused to take a stance, publicly stating that it is delaying its decision to after the period of registration and vetting by the Guardian Council. It may even choose to remain mum. The chatter in the Iranian papers and websites is that the organization – whose prominent members include former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, former interim prime minister Mohammad Reza Mahdavi Kani, and former Majles Speaker and presidential candidate Ali Akbar Nateq Nuri – preferred Mussavi but the pressure on all conservative organizations to tow the line has prevented it from taking a stance.

Similar dynamics seem to be at play within the Society of Qom Seminary Teachers, another clerical organization, even if a couple of prominent clerics in that organization – Mohammad Taqi Mesbah Yazdi and former chief justice Mohammad Yazdi – are known to be strong Ahmadinejad supporters. So far there has been no endorsement.

The Iranian parliament is also caught in this conservative drama. Speaker Larijani, no fan of Ahmadinejad, has mooted the idea of impartiality in the election on the part of the 200-member conservative caucus in the name of separation of power between the legislative and executive branches; an idea vociferously objected to by about 70 diehard Ahmadinejad supporters in the Parliament.

Larijani is caught between a rock and hard place. As the representative of the city of Qom, he simply cannot ignore the views of the religious establishment, which in unhappy with Ahmadinejad. At the same time, he has a rather rambunctious group of Ahmadinejad-nudged deputies to deal with. There are already noises in the Parliament, hinting at an attempt to bring back the previous speaker Gholamreza Haddad Adel to replace him. This is unlikely, but the fact that there are such noises reflects the extent of disagreement that Ahmadinejad tends to generate within the conservative camp.

The drama will continue until Election Day. Something to look for until that day is the public positioning of conservative politicians like Larijani and Qalibaf. Their silence will in effect be a signal that Mussavi’s election is fine with them.

For Mussavi, this is the best he can hope for as he is running a campaign not based on charisma - he doesn’t have much - and generation of popular excitement as former president Khatami would have done, Instead, he is making a calculated effort to peel away votes from Ahmadinejad. This is why he has called himself a reformist that regularly goes back to principles in order to draw the support of both reformists and principlists. He has also been focused on Ahmadinejad’s policies and management capabilities, specifically criticizing them while pronouncing himself to be the true progeny of Ayatollah Khomeini.

He has attacked Ahmadinejad for weakening Iran’s managerial class, economic policies that have harmed the poor and middle classes, deviation from economic development plans, and his adventurist and extremist foreign policy. To be sure, Mussavi has made clear that Iran’s nuclear program is not negotiable. No government can go against popular will on this issue, he said. But, for instance, just last weak he blasted Ahmadinejad for going to Geneva and allowing to be insulted while everyone knew that this was going to happen. He has also said that he will be willing to meet with Barrack Obama, perhaps in a not so hidden hint that chances of Obama meeting with him are much higher than with Ahmadinejad. He has also explicitly used the term détente– a term used during Khatami’s presidency – with the world as a general guide for his foreign policy.

Mussavi's campaign is not without flaws or challenges. He lacks charisma and so far his campaign organization does not seem up to par. It is to be seen whether help from some key Khatami lieutenants will bring organizational order and vibrancy to his campaign.

But the most serious challenge to Mussavi comes from the so-called ‘Sheikh of Reform,’ former Majles speaker Mehdi Karrubi, who is running on a platform of change and refuses to abandon the field in favor of Mussavi. Mussavi has managed to receive the enthusiastic support of former president Khatami and endorsement of major reformist organizations, including Islamic Iran’s Participation Front, Islamic Revolution’s Mojahedin, Servants of Construction Party, and Combatant Cleric Association due to some bad blood between some of these organizations and Karrubi but more so because they think he has a better chance of beating Ahmadinejad. But key members of these organizations such as former Tehran mayor Gholamhossein Karbaschi, former head of Planning and Budget Organization Mohammad Ali Najafi have chosen to work in Karrubi’s campaign and several well known human rights activists such as Emadeddin Baghi and journalists such as Abbas Abdi have publicly identified Karrubi as their preferred candidate due to his support of student and prisoner rights as well as his ability to take strong stances when faced with opposition.

This division among reformists is likely to harm them unless one begins to envision the possibility, as some reformists do, that not only Karrubi will increase participation but also draw more votes away from Ahmadinejad than Mussavi. This argument is based on the belief that in the 2005 election, the 5 million or so vote that Karrubi received in the first round of that election was based on his populist promise of giving out money to every Iranian. This bloc of vote, it is believed, went to Ahmadinejad in the second round contributing to the 17.2 million votes he received. Today, it is argued, these votes are up for grabs because of Ahmadinejad’s failure to deliver on his redistributive policies. Karrubi’s presence may lead his previous supporters to move away from Ahmadinejad and come back to him particularly since Karrubi’s promised economic policies again rely on the idea of distributing the oil money among the people as opposed to sending it to government coffers.

Ethnic links are forwarded as another reason why Karrubi’s presence may be helpful. Karrubi is a Lor and in the last election did well in provinces in the Zagros region. There are talks that he will also do well in border provinces most unhappy with Ahmadinejad policies such as Kordestan and Sistan and Baluchestan (although in the latter Mussavi will also do well since in the last election, the reformist Mustafa Moein won in that province).

Mussavi, who is an Azeri, is expected to do well in the two Azerbaijan provinces and Ardebil and this combined provincial strategy is hoped to be at least sufficient enough to take the election to the second round between Mussavi and Ahmadinejad. Mussavi, of course, will take a first round win if he can. But he is not yet quite well known among the voters and this will work against him in the first round.

In a second round confrontation with Ahmadinejad, however, Mussavi is more likely to benefit from a large number of ‘anti’ votes cast against Ahmadinejad; the same way in the 2005 election such votes were cast against Hashemi Rafsanjani. Ahmadinejad is much better known and has his sure to vote supporters estimated to be somewhere between 10 to 12 million out of the total electorate of about 46.2 million and a likely voting population of about 28 to 30 million; but he also has high negatives and these high negatives will kick in the second round.

Rezaie’s presence may also help Mussavi in so far as it drives up the total number of votes, pushing Ahmadinejad’s base vote to less than 50 percent.

I must admit that I really don’t have any up-to-date yardstick to assess such an analysis. Certainly the reference to the previous election makes sense in so far as estimating the committed Ahmadinejad votes. The 10 to 12 million number comes from the total number of votes for the three conservative candidates – Ahmadinejad, Larijani and Qalibaf - in the first round of 2005 election.

However, few have a feel for the extent to which Ahmadinejad’s populist policies have bought him permanent support, extending his base. This is because, unlike let us say in Chavez’ Venezuela, Ahmadinejad’s populism has been mostly hand-out based. There has been no transfer of assets (land in particular). Money has been handed out, food distributed, short term loans given, immediate financial problem perhaps solved but the fundamentals of the economy, particularly in terms of higher prices, have made these remedies short-term and fleeting.

This is perhaps why just this week, campaigning in the poor area of Islamshahr which is south of Tehran, Ahmadinejad was again telling everyone that had the Majles allowed his policies would have given a family of five close to $300 a month in cash subsidies. In all likelihood, given his promise of bringing oil money to people’s tables in the last election, an alert electorate is less likely to fall for these types of promises. But, in the absence of reliable polling, nothing is really known for sure.

Also unknown is the systemic will to re-elect Ahmadinejad. Iran’s elections are run by the Interior Ministry and supervised by the Guardian Council. Both of these institutions are currently headed by solid Ahmadinejad supporters. Certainly there will be some voter manipulation in his favor. Voiding ballots is a favorite instrument; so is encouragment of people, financially or otherwise, by provincial governor generals and governors appointed by the Interior Ministry to vote in blocs. National television, where most Iranians get their information, is also critical in favoring one candidate over another and giving or not giving sufficient time to candidates who are lesser known than Ahmadinejad. What is not clear is the extent to which these types of instruments will and can be used if all the candidates running are more or less acceptable to significant players and political groupings of Iran.

So far, one key player, Ayatollah Khamenei, has publicly said that he will not make his individual choice in favor of any candidate become public, signaling that he is fine with any of the candidates and promising a fair election. But this is his public posture in every election - although in this election he has taken the unusual step of publicly pointing out that his support for Ahmadinejad as president should not be confused with support for him as candidate - and questions about his “real” preference remain.

Mussavi’s attempt to represent himself as someone who has a foot in both reformist and principlist camps must hence be seen in the light of his attempt to peel away votes from Ahmadinejad and reduce the will to cheat. Meanwhile, Ahmadinejad’s will to win should not be under-estimated.


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