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Iran polling: Will vote see Rouhani-Ghalibaf rematch?

Polls suggest incumbent Iranian President Hassan Rouhani will get a strong challenge from Tehran Mayor Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, but can cleric Ebrahim Raisi close the gap?
Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, Mayor of Tehran, shows his ink-stained finger after registering his candidacy for the upcoming presidential elections at the ministry of interior in the capital Tehran on April 14, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / STR        (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)

According to a recent survey released by the polling firm IranPoll, incumbent Hassan Rouhani remains popular just as Iran’s presidential campaign kicks into high gear. But Tehran Mayor Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, Rouhani’s chief rival from the last presidential election in 2013, is also well regarded by voters. Does the poll, which was conducted April 11-14, set the stage for a rematch between the two men for the presidency?

According to the survey, 62% of Iranians have a favorable opinion of Rouhani; 35% have an unfavorable opinion. For Ghalibaf, who came in second to Rouhani in 2013, 67% of Iranians have a favorable opinion, while 25% have an unfavorable opinion.

The first round of the presidential elections will be held May 19.

The weakness in the broader Iranian economy has weighed heavily on Rouhani’s public image. The International Monetary Fund reported in February that the Iranian economy grew an impressive 7% over the past year, but that nearly all of this growth was attributed to increased oil exports.

The survey shows that 72% of Iranians believe the economic situation “has not improved” as a consequence of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Nearly half — 42% — say unemployment is the most important issue facing the country, with a further 13% specifically citing youth unemployment.

This latest survey shows Rouhani’s popularity has retreated in the two years since the nuclear deal. An August 2015 survey, conducted by IranPoll in conjunction with the University of Maryland just a few weeks after the deal was announced, found an eye-popping 88% of Iranians had a favorable view of Iran’s president. A year later, Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif remained Iran’s most popular political figures, according to a survey by US-based polling institute iPOS, with 75% and 76% favorable ratings, respectively.

The Guardian Council, the body tasked with vetting candidates, released a preliminary slate of six presidential hopefuls on April 20. The six include incumbent Rouhani, Ghalibaf and Principlist Ebrahim Raisi. Also approved were First Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri, Principlist and former Culture Minister Mostafa Mirsalim, and Reformist and former Mines and Industries Minister Mostafa Hashemi-Taba. Rejected candidates now have until April 25 to appeal, with the Interior Ministry set to announce the final list of candidates on April 26-27. Campaigning will officially kick off on April 28.

The grouping Popular Front of Islamic Revolution Forces, known by its Persian acronym, JAMNA, held an internal ballot on April 6, which saw Raisi, Ghalibaf and three other Principlists shortlisted as presidential nominees. But Raisi’s name recognition remains low. Nearly half of Iranians (46%) told IranPoll that they have no opinion of him, while 32% have a favorable opinion and 22% have an unfavorable opinion.

Yet Raisi’s low name recognition may not prove to be a disadvantage. Rouhani was unimpressive in early polls before winning the 2013 election with 51% of the vote.

Also relatively unknown is Rouhani ally Jahangiri (29% favorable/23% unfavorable), of whom 48% in the IranPoll survey have no opinion. Mirsalim and Hashemi-Taba did not appear in the survey.

The potential rematch between Rouhani and Ghalibaf will place a spotlight on Iranian polling. Ghalibaf led Rouhani in most credible polls during the 2013 campaign. However, as Rouhani’s surprise win demonstrates, it’s not unusual to see big swings in the polls over the course of Iran’s brief campaign season, which ends May 17 (all campaigning is banned 48 hours ahead of voting).

University of Maryland/University of Tehran pollster Ebrahim Mohseni found that strategic voting was a big factor in Rouhani’s first-round win in 2013. Nearly a quarter of Rouhani voters later told pollsters that they actually preferred Ghalibaf but voted for Rouhani in order to deny other candidates the chance of a runoff.

The Guardian Council rejected the candidacies of former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his ally, former Vice President Hamid Baghaei. Ahmadinejad has long had high ‘unfavorable’ numbers among Iranian voters, but he retains a base of support.

According to IranPoll, 52% of Iranians have a favorable opinion of Ahmadinejad. Still, 46% have an unfavorable opinion, with 24% “very unfavorable,” the highest among all the names IranPoll tested. An iPOS survey from May 2016 found that nearly 30% of the electorate would still support Ahmadinejad in a head-to-head matchup with Rouhani, who received 41% in the same survey.

The IranPoll survey has a representative sample of 1,005 Iranian adults and was conducted by telephone April 11-14. The poll has a margin of error of +/- 3%. IranPoll is a Canadian firm but conducts surveys in Iran over the telephone using Persian-speaking interviewers.

The Guardian Council’s announcement marks the beginning of the “silly season” in Iranian politics, even where political polling is concerned. On Apr. 24, Alef, the news website run by prominent conservative Ahmad Tavakoli, published a report on a poll said to have been carried out by the Iranian state broadcaster, which claims to have Rouhani leading both Ghalibaf and Raisi in head-to-head matchups. However, it’s not unusual in Iran for news outlets to publish reports of nonscientific surveys. Without further details, such polls shouldn’t be considered reliable if they lack the disclosure of basic methodological information.