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They Said No: 2013 Iranian Presidential Post-Election Report

- June 17, 2013

Continuing our series of election reports, the following post-election report on the 2013 Iranian presidential elections is provided by Navid Hassanpour, a Ph.D. candidate in political science at Yale University.


Figure1. A snapshot of the polls in the days leading to the election, showing Rouhani’s surge in the last three days, source: www.ipos.me

Last Friday, Iranians voted a surprising “No” to the exclusionist policies of the unelected elite and chose Hassan Rouhani, the unlikely symbol of that negation, as their next President. In the 1997 election, Rouhani was mentioned on par with the Islamic Republic’s favorite Nategh-Nouri, as a competitive challenger to Khatami’s candidacy. Now after 16 years, the contentious competition between the moderates and the hardliners, and the increasing pressure of the public opinion have united an eclectic mix of reformists and pragmatists against the extreme politics of the traditional right.

In the eleventh presidential election of the Islamic Republic Hassan Rouhani won just enough votes–less than 19 million–barely above the fifty percent needed to avoid a precarious run-off in the second round. The election increasingly became a referendum on the current foreign and domestic policies in a race that pit one so-called moderate (اعتدالگرا) candidate against a host of three (or four depending on the definition) competitive principalists (اصولگرا). In a race charged with the division between the moderates and the principalists, the anguished electorate voted “No” to the failed policies of the past eight years. After the Guardian Council disqualified enough candidates and the last reformist (اصلاح طلب) candidate dropped out, Rouhani, a Rafsanjani confidant, became the focal emblem of the opposition and won handily against a camp of disillusioned allies of Khamenei. The repercussions of this outcome are major, at least in two distinct directions: first, the Iranian nuclear negotiations with P5+1, as well as the ongoing power game between the Rafsanjani and Khamenei camps which can define the future of the Islamic Republic past Khamenei. A brief recount of the events leading to the outcome is revealing of the dynamics of power, either democratic or authoritarian, in the Iranian politics.

1.    A Brief History of Presidency in the Islamic Republic

After the victory of the 1979 Revolution, the Presidency was included in the Constitution as an innovation. Prior to 1979 and during the years of the Constitutional Monarchy (1906-1979), the second to the Monarch was the Prime Minister. The post-revolution Constitution introduced the Presidency, and Abulhassan Banisadr was elected President in 1980. Only a year later, the power struggles of the nascent Revolutionary regime and the rivalries of the president-elect and a vexed Khomeini brought Banisadr an impeachment. His confrontation with Khomeini ended in a transfer of major Presidential powers to the Supreme Leader, including the command of the Armed Forces. During the past 32 years, Rajai, Khamenei, Hashemi Rafsanjani, Khatami, and Ahmadinejad played a nuanced game vis-à-vis the unelected leader. When the conflict between Ahmadinejad and Khamenei was at its height many of Khamenei’s supporters invoked the clashes between Khomeini and Banisadr at the beginning days of the Islamic Republic, demanding the same fate for an overambitious Ahmadinejad. The presidential election of 2013 was held in the wake of bruising skirmishes between Ahamdinejad at the helm of the executive branch on one side, and the judiciary and the legislature—and by proxy—the Supreme Leader Khamenei on the other. The hardline leadership was determined to keep the presidential power in check.

2.    How did Rouhani Win?

The presidential election in Iran starts with a public call for candidacy, after which a myriad of eccentric figures show up at the registration offices during the registration days. The state media often turns the event into a public electoral circus, emphasizing the festive and unofficial meaning of presidency for the unelected bastions of the Islamic Republic who—not surprisingly—are in charge of the state media apparatus. Often hundreds, if not more, register to become candidates. The Guardian Council (a 12-member congregation of six clergies appointed by the Supreme Leader, and six legal scholars chosen by the Parliament, Majlis, and approved by the leader) vets about half a dozen of the registrants and the candidates start their campaigns up to a day before the election. This year, the authoritative rulings of the Guardian Council over the fate of candidate hopefuls turned the registration process itself into a chaotic political calculus: three major figures registered in the final hours of the registration period (7-11 May, 2013). Saeed Jalili, Esfandiar Mashaei, and Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani showed up in the last two hours of registration period on May 11th and excited their supporter base. The final list of eligible candidates was announced on May 21st. The Guardian Council surprised the electorate by disqualifying Hashemi Rafsanjani, a previous president, the head of the Expediency Council (an institution he has augmented as a political organization parallel to Khamenei’s bureaucracy of power), and the archrival of Khamenei. Hashemi was deemed to easily win the competition and reign in Khamenei’s faction in domestic and foreign policymaking. Mashaei, the closest candidate to Ahmadinejad, and his potential partner in a Putin-Medvedevsque scheme, was also rejected, albeit expectedly.

Campaigning was allowed to start on May 24th. This meant the candidates had mere 20 days to stage a countrywide campaign. In a country plagued by social authoritarianism and political violence, electoral campaigns are also mirrors of the dominant political exercise. Canvassing is often unheard of, as there are risks involved. Many are hesitant to listen to those who appear unsolicited at their doorsteps. At least at the moment, grassroots campaign tools are the exclusionary dominion of the traditional religious right, who have been successfully utilizing the electrifying means of mosques and sermons to mobilize. In the absence of canvassing, the candidates draw attention in the provinces by making trips to state Capitals and making appearances in prearranged supporter rallies. Trying to emulate a more democratic approach, some candidates made unannounced visits to poor neighborhoods of Southern Tehran and mingled with the crowds asking questions about their wants and misgivings.

The Iranian State Television ran three debates on economic, cultural, and political issues in turn. In line with the same condescending and belittling tone of the unelected part of the governing body, at times the moderators quizzed the candidates on trifling questions on camera. At some point during the first debate the candidates were shown a picture of Bringham Canyon copper mine in Utah and were asked to guess what it might be. One of the candidates found it to be a picturesque valley and opined on the importance of tourism industry.

Eventually what tipped the balance in favor of Rouhani was the nature of political alliances in the last week leading to the polls. Two major components helped an alliance to emerge on the Iranian electoral politics stage, and the principalist camp’s neglecting that emergence cost them the election: first, the last televised debate turned to a humiliating reprisal against Saeed Jalili, the chief nuclear negotiator, and the far right’s favorite: Velayati (a former foreign minister) in particular staged a stinging rhetorical attack on Jalili accusing him of missing opportunities in the course of nuclear negotiations and applying “sermons” instead of diplomacy. On another front, Rouhani and Ghalibaf (another favorite of the right and the likely winner of the race at the time) sparred on their reaction to the student protests of 2003. Rouhani successfully accused Ghalibaf—a former military man and police commander—of baiting the students into violent protests and planning to rout them in surprise attacks. A few days later and three days prior to the voting, the reformist candidate Mohammadreza Aref, dropped out of the race, citing pressure from Khatami (and by proxy Rafsanjani) in favor of Rouhani as the only viable option for the moderate camp. It seemed the reformists’ adherence to Duverger’s law, knowingly or not, effectively assisted their campaign. In contrast, the principalist faction, expecting an easy and predictable win, failed to heed the most principal edicts of alliance: Rouhani became the focal candidate of the opposition running against a tattered camp of three or four competitive principalists, none of whom presented a uniting axis. After Aref’s exit, the dynamics of the race quickly moved in Rouhani’s favor. The Iranian public opinion is highly volatile, and in the absence of public venues for displaying common opinion cascades happen regularly. Many keep their real opinion on issues to themselves, looking for cues to make final decisions. In such an uncertain social environment often the focality of a campaign is the key to success.

Several polling organizations surveyed the public opinion prior to the election. In retrospect, one of the most accurate ones was a phone-based poll of 1067 Iranians on a four days rolling basis. The poll showed a surge in the votes of Rouhani and a decline in the prospects of Ghalibaf in the final days leading to the voting. Valayati’s devastating attacks on Jalili galvanized many who have been suffering from the direct results of the economic sanctions related to the Iranian nuclear program. On their television screens, they saw the chastisement of the person who had been the unassailable face of the hardline nuclear policy, and noticed the faulty logic behind it is vulnerable to simple questions. Rouhani who was Khatami’s chief nuclear negotiator handily exploited the dissatisfaction, and buoyed by Khatami and Rafsanjani’s support emerged as the uniting axis of a hopeful popular opposition.

3.    The Implications of Rouhani’s Presidency for Iran’s Foreign and Domestic Policymaking

Rouhani’s election will transform the internal and external politics of the Islamic Republic in two major ways. First, it drives the conflict between the two major bastions of power in the Islamic Republic to a new level. At a time when Ahmadinejad is estranged from Khamenei and the unelected body of the Islamic Republic under Khamenei is facing the reality of a 10 percent popular support among the electorate, Rouhani and Rafsanjani will play effectively against Khamenei. However, Rouhani has shown that he does not see the democratic game as a bottom-up process, but more as a product of pacts and alliances behind the scene accompanied with populist and patronizing campaign strategies. He was adamant in his categorical condemnation of student protests against censorship in 1999 and has repeatedly distanced himself from reformists. Instead of an emphasis on popular participation, he is expected to strike a close alliance with Rafsanjani and intensify the clandestine power struggle against the traditional right. On the domestic scene, democratic participation does not seem to be his first concern.

Second, on the nuclear front Rouhani will lead a new approach, and the admission of his presidency on the side of the hardliners signals their willingness to accept a midway solution to the nuclear problem, a solution that Rouhani can deliver on their behalf. Rouhani is no stranger to negotiating with the U.S. and Europe. He is said to have been a member of the Iranian negotiating team during the Iran-Contra affair, and was the Iranian chief nuclear negotiator under Khatami as the secretary of the Iranian Supreme National Security Council. He is also the head of Center for Strategic Research, a policy research organization close to Rafsanjani. Three out of the final six presidential candidates this year have extensive experience—with mixed results—in international negotiations. This is a signal on where the Islamic Republic’s priorities lie at moment. During the past two weeks, Rouhani repeatedly mentioned he prefers to talk to the Europeans’ chief [sic] instead of wasting time squabbling with Europeans themselves. These words, as a window to Rouhani’s understanding of the World, can also be indicative of the nature of his foreign diplomacy in the next four years.