On April 20, Iran’s Guardian Council announced the slate of six candidates who will compete in the May 19 presidential elections. In recent months, as the vote has approached, the conventional wisdom among political observers has been that the election is incumbent President Hassan Rouhani’s to lose. But a series of surprises have cast doubt on this expert consensus: Former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad put in a surprise bid for candidacy on April 12, against the stated wishes of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, while recent polls of voter preferences for prospective candidates show a tighter race than anticipated. This increased competition is a crucial component of elections in Iran.
Historical trends suggest that Rouhani will be the likely winner next month. But it is in the interest of the political establishment to aim for a competitive election while keeping the scales in Rouhani’s favor. Managed uncertainty helps drive voter turnout, and high levels of electoral participation are valuable for the Islamic Republic. In a country with a diverse, politically active and young population, the democratic process is an important tool that is used to channel political engagement. It is in the supreme leader’s interest to ensure that the democratic process is perceived as legitimate and serves as a tool for mass participation in the political process.