Front-Runners Emerge In Iran’s Presidential Race

With the Iranian presidential election two days away, the front-runners are the reformist Hassan Rouhani, the conservatives Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf and Ali Akbar Velayati, and the radical Saeed Jalili.

al-monitor A file photo taken June 1, 2013, shows Iranian presidential candidate and former chief nuclear negotiator Hassan Rouhani. Photo by REUTERS/Fars News.

Topics covered

conservatives, centrist

Jun 12, 2013

Reformist candidate Mohammad Reza Aref finally withdrew from the presidential race in favor of centrist candidate Hassan Rouhani. Aref, who served as vice president between 2001 and 2005 during the reign of reformist President Mohammad Khatami, said that he withdrew because it “serves the cause of change in general and as a response to Mr. Khatami’s advice.”

As As-Safir predicted yesterday [June 11], Aref’s resignation came just four days before the election and it enables Rouhani to portray the election as between conservatives on the one hand and centrists/reformists on the other.

Aref’s move was very important to Rouhani, not because Aref may have received many votes, which is uncertain, but because Aref’s withdrawal makes Rouhani the only candidate from outside the conservative bloc.

Rouhani’s chances of winning next Friday depend on his ability to convince the electors that the fight is about societal and economic issues, as Khatami successfully did in the 1997 and 2001 elections.

Aref’s withdrawal coincided with Rouhani receiving an open endorsement from Khatami and an implicit endorsement from Hashemi Rafsanjani, who is historically close to Rouhani. The latter has been campaigning in northwestern Iranian cities, such as Tabriz and Urmia, which saw heavy turnout of Iranian citizens. It is true that a pro-Rouhani polarization has not yet materialized, but many among the crowd waved Rouhani’s purple banners. Will those banners and Aref’s withdrawal be enough to mobilize the reformist bloc after many reformist figures have chosen to boycott the election? We will soon find out.

After the withdrawal of Aref, and Gholam Ali Haddad-Adel before him, the electoral scene two days before the election points to two scenarios.

In the first scenario, none of the remaining six candidates will withdraw. As-Safir estimates that the front-runners are Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, Ali Akbar Velayati, Rouhani and Saeed Jalili. It is worth mentioning that the popularity of independent candidate Mohsen Rezai is growing in the Iranian countryside, but not to the point of forcing a runoff election.

In the first scenario, a runoff election is highly expected. Rouhani’s chances will be good in the runoff if he can generate a polarization that would make the reformists go back on their decision to boycott the election. This polarization cannot be generated by a speech here or there, but by a major shift in popular mood. And there is no evidence for that yet.

The fight between the three conservative candidates will intensify as they try to make it to the runoff, but their chances depend on several factors. Jalili’s chances will be good if he gets Ahmadinejad’s support and if the other two candidates get almost equal votes.

The chances of Ghalibaf appear promising, according to all opinion polls published so far, albeit the polls had significant flaws in their population samples.

Ghalibaf’s chances depend on his ability to attract the supporters of the so-called “triple alliance” at the expense of Velayati, who has the support of conservative institutions and associations as well as many members of the Iranian parliament.

Ghalibaf is fighting a battle against his partner in the “triple alliance” before he would have to fight it against the radical candidate Jalili and the centrist Rouhani. Moreover, many opinion polls have shown Ghalibaf ahead of the other candidates, which makes it difficult to persuade him to withdraw in favor of Velayati.

Haddad-Adel, the third partner in the “triple alliance” along with Velayati and Ghalibaf, has refused to endorse one of the two candidates even though he withdrew.

Velayati’s chances are good because of the increasing institutional support he is getting from the conservative associations and institutions. That support is creating the impression that he has the support of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and makes it difficult for Velayati to withdraw. Velayati’s chances depend on attracting Khamenei’s supporters, who count for millions.

The second scenario involves the withdrawal of either Ghalibaf or Velayati in favor of the other, which may be enough to determine Iran’s next president. If someone from the “triple alliance” withdraws, it will allow a conservative to at least move on to the runoff phase.

In that case, the race will be confined to three candidates: one from the “triple alliance” (either Ghalibaf or Velayati), Rouhani, and Jalili. But the three don’t have equal support. Jalili would be attacked from the “triple alliance” on the right and from Rouhani on the left. Rouhani may not be able polarize the masses, which is necessary for his victory.

In short, the front-runners are Ghalibaf, Rouhani, Velayati and Jalili, with a clear preference that a candidate from the “triple alliance” will make it to the runoff.

If neither Ghalibaf nor Velayati withdraws, a runoff round is likely. Ghalibaf’s popularity and Velayati’s closeness to the supreme guide provide more votes than Rouhani’s polarization and Jalili’s radicalism and his closeness to Ahmadinejad.

If either Velayati or Ghalibaf withdraws today, it will change the balance and make the remaining candidate from the "triple alliance" favored by the supreme guide. If either withdraws tomorrow, the first scenario will happen because the remaining "triple-alliance" candidate will find it hard to mobilize supporters so close to the election. So we have to see what happens today and the final picture will appear tomorrow.

Continue reading this article by registering at no cost and get unlimited access to:
  • Al-Monitor Archives
  • The Week in Review
  • Exclusive Events
  • Invitation-only Briefings

More from  Mustafa al-Labbad