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Iran Presidential election results show preference for a liberal and reformist leader

Iranian Presidential election

Nobody can describe the outcomes of Iran’s 2017 Presidential election better than Professor Hamid Dabashi at Columbia University- “ In a spectacular show of the democratic will of a nation against the entrenched theocratic institutions of a state, the overwhelming majority of Iranians have voted Hassan Rouhani back to office to continue with his snail-pace transformation of the Islamic republic from a deeply ideological bastion of militant Islamism into a major regional cornerstone of economic neoliberalism. The frame and form of the Islamic republic stays very much the same, but something seemingly harmless though charmingly beguiling is crawling under its skin and from inside out is turning it into a hollow apparition of itself. This is neither a revolution nor a reform. This is a metamorphosis.”

Incumbent president Hassan Rouhani was re-elected for a second term.  Presidential elections were held in Iran on 19 May 2017, the twelfth such election in Iran. Local elections were held simultaneously. Candidates’ registration took place from 11 to 15 April 2017. Incumbent president Hassan Rouhani was eligible to run for re-election. His rivals were the conservatives’ top candidate Ebrahim Raisi, the Islamic Coalition Party’s Mostafa Mir-Salim and Mostafa Hashemitaba who ran with no partisan support. Rouhani was re-elected for a second term. According to results announced by the Interior Ministry, Rouhani received 23.5 of 41 million votes counted. His closest rival, Ebrahim Raisi, received 15.7 million votes. Rouhani was re-elected for a second term by presenting himself as an ardent believer in change and social freedom. Hassan Rouhani won a clear victory to a second term as Iran’s president. The turnout in election was close to 73 percent, with the incumbent taking some 56 percent of the over-40 million votes cast. Turnout in the last election in 2013 was roughly the same. But that year, Rouhani won only 50.7 percent of the vote.

The message and meaning of Rouhani’s victory

Still, the significance of this election is not that Rouhani won, but what he did in order to win. This was because of message in his victory or aspirations of voters. Many American observers assumed the election would be a referendum on the nuclear deal, and that Rouhani would coast to victory. But, for the most part, that was not the case. Unlike in the U.S. presidential campaign, none of the Iranian candidates threatened to rip up the deal. Even the most hardline candidate said that there was no going back on its terms. At the outset, Rouhani was too centrist to excite the millions who had animated the Green Movement of 2009—reformist and secular Iranians who want real change. So to win, and to win big, he had to run an aggressive, attention-grabbing campaign. He addressed issues Iranians cared about in ways that broke taboos and crossed political red lines. And he promised to lift social restrictions and change Iranian politics and foreign affairs in ways that put him on a collision course with the country’s clerical establishment and security forces. This was not just a simple reelection, or a vote for continuity; it wound up as a bold political maneuver and a significant turning point for Iran.

The issues and campaign

Rouhani’s conservative challengers ran a better campaign than most expected. The well-financed, well-organized conservatives also ran on a powerful populist message that appealed to the legions of poor people whose lives have been unaffected by the high drama of the nuclear deal. They questioned Rouhani’s management of the economy, and why he had been unable to secure the economic benefits he had promised would follow the nuclear deal. They claimed they could better protect Iran’s interests abroad and address its problems at home. The conservatives had a point: the economy had improved but continued to sputter, and its benefits had failed to accrue to the poor. And Rouhani was at a loss to explain why the nuclear deal had fallen short.

Affluent Iranians, who stand to gain the most from the opening of Iran’s economy to the world and relaxation of social restrictions, liked Rouhani but did not believe he would be a change agent. They had welcomed the nuclear deal but were not convinced that it would deliver the economic benefits Rouhani had promised. Moreover, during his first term as president, he had not tackled political reform. Rouhani would have been in trouble if affluent and moderate Iranians did not vote, but they seem to have voted for him. Rouhani during the campaign allured voters by suggesting that it was possible to get rid of additional sanctions on Iran, even those connected to its missile program, terrorism, and regional mischief. Declaring that he would challenge Iran’s ruling establishment to talk to the United States about the gamut of issues that have defined Iran’s regional policies was bold. He also tried to attract votes of secular and reformist Iranians, although it is doubtful that he got thier support of large chunk of this group.

Reformist candidates also swept municipal elections in Iran’s capital, taking all 21 seats in Tehran as president Hassan Rouhani won a second term. Their win in election marks the first time reformists have totally controlled Tehran’s municipal council since such votes began in 1999. Iranian media also reported similar big gains for reformists in other major cities, signaling a groundswell of support for slowly changing governance in the Islamic Republic.

Triumph of Democratic will and impending challenges

Hamid Dabashi succinctly concludes about the meaning of Rouhani’s win and challenges thereupon- “From a total population of Iran that has just hit more than 80 million, some 56 million are eligible voters, of which more than 70 percent, a staggering 41 million Iranians, rushed to polling stations, spent endless hours in lines and voted in a stunning show of a democratic will that does not take the ruling theocracy too seriously. Of the total vote cast, more than 23 million voted for Rouhani and 15 million plus for his arch conservative rival Ebrahim Raisi. But that democratic will is now set to be tested against monumental odds facing Rouhani and his cabinet. In part because of the dastardly US Congress, the occupied Israeli territory, continuing to impose new sanctions on Iran, and in part because of the structural deficiencies of a mostly oil and gas-based economy, Rouhani has not managed to translate his success with negotiating a nuclear deal with 5+1 into tangible economic gains for the middle class.”

“The more Rouhani is engaged globally to invite foreign investment and ease tensions in the region, the stronger will be his hand domestically. The victory of Rouhani is the triumph of a robust middle class overriding the ideological banality of an outdated theocracy. If the Islamic Republic wishes to survive in a vastly globalised neoliberalism, it needs to open up space for its restless middle class. The two successive victories of the globalist Rouhani over his nativist rivals in 2013 and now in 2017 are the signals of a globally grounded middle class dragging a theocracy into the democratic game.”

“But those who voted for Raisi in their millions cannot be easily dismissed. Raisi is the latest remnant of a clerical order that is retreating to its historic domain of the conservative bazaar merchant class, out of touch with the urban bourgeoisie that has now all but abandoned the revolutionary fervour of their parental generation. Even the pious reformism of the Khatami era looks arcane and outlandish to this new class in light of their desires for engaging with the global market.”

“That globalism will exacerbate, as it always does everywhere, the income disparity and the gap between the rich and the poor, between the globalised middle class and the nativists disenfranchised by that very globalisation. A good segment of those millions who voted for Raisi are of this category, and Rouhani and his supporters will be foolish to ignore them. Rouhani might be the Iranian version of Macron, who won in France. But he could have been the Clinton who lost in the US. The lessons of the defeated Marine Le Pen in France and the victorious Trump in the US must be a warning to Rouhani and his supporters. If the poor and the disenfranchised that their reckless neoliberalism will undoubtedly generate and increase in number do not find a legitimate and enabling space in the expanded market economy of their choice, they will gather around a far scarier Iranian version of Trump and Le Pen put together.”

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