Mostafa Rajaai writes on the run-up to the Iranian Presidential Elections, and Hassan Rouhani’s unexpected victory.
Hassan Rouhani’s 50.71 percent victory on Friday’s election came as a shock to those following the run up to the much anticipated Iranian presidential election. A 72.2 percent turnout of 50.5 million eligible voters allowed Rouhani to gain a landslide victory with over three times more votes than the next runner up, the conservative mayor of Tehran, Mohammad Qalibaf.
After the unrest that followed the 2009 disputed elections, spectators did not expect the middle class, the students, the educated, and those associated with reformists, to participate in this presidential election, especially as two of the 2009 candidates who led the Green Movement have been under house arrest for more than two years. Speculations started to change when Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the former president and one of the most influential figures within the Islamic Republic, signed up to run in the elections. Rafsanjani was a close aide to the late revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and has held most of the Iran’s top political positions, including parliament speaker, armed forces commander, and president from 1989 to 1997.
However, Rafsanjani’s relationship with the supreme leader has been severely damaged within the past four years. The supreme leader’s office became hostile towards Hashemi after he demanded that political prisoners be released and actions be taken in order to restore people’s trust in the government. He addressed these supposed injustices on July 17th 2009 at his first Friday prayers after the election. It was to be the last Friday prayer he would ever lead.
The resentment towards Rafsanjani quickly spread throughout the government bodies. His daughter was arrested and jailed for six months for supporting the opposition Green Movement. Mehdi Hashemi, Rafsanjani’s son, was also arrested upon returning to Iran from the UK in September 2012 and was similarly accused of inciting unrest following the disputed 2009 Iranian presidential election. However he was released on a multi million pound bail after spending two months in detention.
Rafsanjani submitted his application to the interior ministry to run for the presidency only minutes before the deadline. The majority of those who were initially planning to boycott the ‘democratic’ process welcomed his last minute decision. The hype, controversy, and excitement of this decision fuelled the hopes of these sceptical voters. However, all applications have to be sent to the Guardian Council to be filtered. The Guardian Council is made up of six high rank clerics directly appointed by the Supreme Leader and six jurists selected by the parliament from jurists nominated by the head of the judicial system, who himself is appointed by the Supreme Leader. This year, from 686 applicants, only eight were chosen to run for presidency, and Rafsanjani was not one of them.
The refusal of the government to allow Rafsanjani to run in the election was an indication that the government would not allow anyone with the slightest disagreement with the current Supreme Leader to hold office. It is important to note Rafsanjani’s role as one of the founders of the Islamic Republic and the person responsible for the selection of Seyed Ali Khamenei as the Supreme Leader. Although sources close to the Guardian Council claimed that Rafsanjani was disqualified from running based his age (79), some challenged this by pointing out that the Khamenei himself is 74, and has more responsibilities than any presidential role.
The Guardian Council’s announcement was the start of a new wave of disbelief in the system. The conservative candidates welcomed the news, as they now saw no strong opponent in the presidential race. The right wing speculated that a lack of a strong and united campaign by the reformists would lead to a low turnout, which could guarantee the conservative’s victory. The only voters that would participate in the elections regardless of the individuals running would typically vote for whoever is considered closest to the supreme leader.
Televised debates and detailed interviews began a couple of weeks before Election Day. It was after these debates that the general public realised that Mohammadreza Aref, the first Vice President in Khatami’s reformist government, is more of a reformist than was previously thought. From the early stages of the election process, long before submitting applications to the Guardian Council, three of the conservative candidates, Qalibaf, Haddad-Adel and Velayati agreed to create a coalition known as the 2+1 coalition. They agreed if all three passed the Council’s filter, they would come to an agreement that two would withdraw in favour of the third candidate. After the official announcements from the Council there were also rumours of Aref and Rouhani forming a similar agreement.
Haddad-Adal, father-in-law to Mojtaba Khamenei, Ayotollah Khamenei’s son, was the first to announce his decision to withdraw from the elections. Surprisingly, he did not endorse another candidate and the other two parties within the 2+1 coalition carried on without any mention of withdrawing. Interestingly, Aref only announced his decision to withdraw after Khatami and Rafsanjani mutually decided to support Rouhani just a couple of days before the election. The endorsement of Rouhani by Khatami and Rafsanjani came at a very critical time. Rouhani has always been considered as a centrist. His political position made him a desirable candidate for the reformists. They believed that by not having any political attachments, Rouhani would have a better chance of pushing through non-partisan reforms. He also managed to acquire the support of moderate conservatives who were disillusioned with the stance of the hardliners.
No poll predicted the final outcome, the decisions made by the reformist leaders in the 48 hours preceding the election drastically contributed to the turnout and subsequently led to the victory of Rouhani. As a former head of Iran’s nuclear negotiating team, Rouhani is well known within the international diplomatic scene. Jack Straw, the former British foreign minister, has dealt with Rouhani many times in the past, and commented: “On a personal level I found him warm and engaging. He is a strong Iranian patriot and he was tough, but fair to deal with, and always on top of his brief.” The White House has also responded warmly by releasing a statement welcoming the decision of the Iranian people, a sign of a possible improvement in relations between Iran and the West.
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