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Iran's next president: What is the likely outcome of 17 June?

By Amir Ali Nourbakhsh

Iran Focus, June 2005 Vol 18 No 6

This article is from the political-economic monthly IRAN FOCUS, published by the UK based Menas Associates. For more on Menas Associates please visit


Irrespective of the identity of Iran’s next president, events leading up to the election on 17 June have already left irreversible traces on the political climate. The first part of this article discusses these. The second part elaborates on developments in the campaigns of the three main candidates and discusses their impacts on the next presidential tenure. The third part considers which of the three candidates has the best chance of winning the election and why.



Presidential Candidates (artwork by ISNA)

Registrations & disqualifications


By 10 May, when registration closed, 1,014 Iranians had put themselves forward at the ministry of interior as candidates for the 17 June election. Among these were both women and men, and their ages ranged between 18 and 80.


The first unexpected news came two days before the Guardian Council was due to announce the results of its screening and qualification processes. On 23 May, the local press announced that the council had approved only six candidates. These were Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Mohsen Rezai, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Mohammadbaqer Qalibaf, Ali Ardeshir Larijani and Mehdi Karroubi (for profiles of these politicians, see Iran Focus, 18:5, May 2005, 1). The reformists’ strongest candidate, Mostafa Moin, had been disqualified.  


Moreover, other reformist figures, such as Mohsen Mehralizadeh and Ebrahim Asgharzadeh, but also the legal opposition Freedom Movement of Iran’s candidate, Ebrahim Yazdi, had been disqualified.


What raised eyebrows, however, was the fact that even conservative candidates very close to the establishment had been disqualified. These included Reza Zavarei and Akbar Alami. Zavarei had for over a decade been among the six lawyer members of the Guardian Council. As a member of the bazaar-affiliated party Motalefeh, he ran against Mohammad Khatami in the 1997 election. His disqualification has been among the most unexpected political events in the history of the Islamic Republic.


Alami, a member of the current conservative-dominated Majlis, was approved by the council for election to that body less than two years ago. Disqualifying such personalities could, constitutionally speaking, imply that they had committed illegal acts in the period between the last time their electoral applications were approved and the recent vetting process. Alternatively, it might be that their profiles did not fit to that of a presidential candidate. The following are the constitutional criteria that an Iranian president should meet:


Article 115: The President must be elected from among religious and political personalities possessing the following qualifications: Iranian origin; Iranian nationality; administrative capacity and resourcefulness; a good past record; trustworthiness and piety; convinced belief in the fundamental principles of the Islamic Republic of Iran and the official madhhab (religion) of the country.


The Guardian Council has so far refrained from making public its motivations for the disqualifications. However, since Zavarei was approved by the Guardian Council on a previous occasion as a presidential candidate it is more likely that there were other reasons for disqualification.


One possibility is that the conservatives’ coordination committee had difficulties convincing the six main candidates to reach an agreement on a single candidate. Among the four conservatives approved (Ahmadinejad, Larijani, Qalibaf and Rezai) there was still hope that at least two would withdraw in favour of the others. But with Alami and Zavarei on the contenders’ list, the likelihood would have been that there were so many conservatives in play that the entire camp’s victory would be jeopardised.


As for the reformists, they had only one day to issue threats that they would boycott the election and that the system would face a legitimacy crisis if it kept Moin off the candidate list. On 24 May, the press announced that following a decree issued by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, Moin and Mehralizadeh had been reinstated. The decree had several implications.


The conservatives tried to imply that it was a “hokm-e hokoumati” (a “Leader’s special decree”). As this kind of decree is not provided for in the constitution or any official legislation, the conservatives wanted to imply that, first, the Leader could veto any decision because of his divine right to rule. Second, the implication was that since Moin was reinstated through this special decree, were he elected president (or in any future statements he might make as a political activist) it would be inappropriate for him to criticise such decrees, as reformists have done in the past.


Moin, both in the press and in his TV teaser for the campaign, said that he “still did not believe in the special decree. How they [the Council and Leader] will justify my legal right to run as president is their own problem.”


Finally, it was striking that the Leader’s intervention reinstated only Moin and Mehralizadeh, leaving the conservatives Zavarei and Alami out in the cold.




Three weeks before election day, due on 17 June, candidates were allowed to start campaigning. The most widely publicised candidates were the centrist Rafsanjani and the conservative Qalibaf. Surprisingly, both candidates have selectively used images of modern and Westernised young boys and girls to suggest that they were open to the promotion of social freedoms. Meanwhile in the first 10 days of campaigning, Moin was almost invisible on posters anywhere in Iran.


Qalibaf, the Leader’s favourite, has focused on the use of traditional ideological posters showing pictures of Ayatollahs Khomeini and Khamenei in the more religious areas while wealthy northern Tehran and the more wealthy districts of other cities are filled with images of the young types that the conservatives have until now been trying to silence under the pretext of fighting “cultural invasion”, the Supreme Leader’s catchphrase.


Qalibaf’s is the most extensive, expensive and best organised of the campaigns. A local journalist told Iran Focus that Qalibaf has had about $19 million at his disposal. Given the extremely large number of his quality posters spread throughout the country, this does not sound far fetched.


Rafsanjani has also set up some of his main campaign centres in the northern parts of Tehran where the jet-set Iranian expatriates and westernizsed rich live. On 8 June, the evening of the football match between Iran and Bahrain that qualified Iran for the 2006 World Cup in Germany, Iranian streets were filled with young people who blocked the main roads and danced on the streets, with some women removing their headscarves.


Both Qalibaf and Rafsanjani’s campaigns were very active in the streets of Tehran. Stickers and posters were distributed mainly by young people. The most striking event in the past weeks has been the appearance of Rafsanjani’s supporters. These are mainly young girls with westernised make-up accompanied by stylish young men wearing jeans, designer-label shirts and long or gelled hair. And they are the types that the paramilitary basij and often law enforcement forces tended to arrest and molest in the past, not least when Rafsanjani was president or when Qalibaf was police chief.


In 1997 and 2001, when Khatami was elected and re-elected president, many of these westernised Iranians – who were among die-hard supporters of Khatami – carried Iran banners and his campaign posters, distributed his pictures and did free campaigning for him as the conservatives were chanting their ideological slogans and verbally and physically assaulting them. Today, both Qalibaf and Rafsanjani are trying to imply to the nation that their supporters are from among this social class. Observers disagree on the level of authenticity of these movements.


Moin is running the weakest campaign of the three main candidates. Unlike in 1997, the reformists have had difficulties raising funds. One of the reasons is that in 1997 Rafsanjani was both ideologically and financially behind Khatami. The same goes for former reformist Majlis speaker Mehdi Karroubi and the leadership of some other pro-reformist groups that for various reasons are not supporting the Moin team today.


Not until two weeks before election day did the Iranian layman consider Moin a serious candidate. The perception was that either Rafsanjani or Qalibaf were the system’s preferred candidates and that one would eventually win irrespective of how strongly Moin was supported.


However, the support of the religio-nationalists, numerous student groups and particular ethnic minorities have made Moin a serious contender on the eve of the election. Moreover, Moin’s TV campaign teaser and his recent harsh comments about actions by the security apparatus have been a major factor in his team’s effort to convince Iranians that they can do better than Khatami did. In his teaser, Moin harshly condemned the serial killings of the dissidents of 1998 and the killing of the Iranian-Canadian photo journalist Zahra Kazemi. Iran Focus believes that many Iranians still think and thus vote in terms of conservatism versus reformism, irrespective of how unsuccessful Khatami’s eight years in power have been.


Iran Focus’s prediction


Analysis: In February, Mohammad Reza Khatami, Moin’s choice as vice-presidential aspirant, told Iran Focus: “We are capitalising on a 40% turnout and hope to be able to get into the second round with Mr Hashemi [Rafsanjani]. But anything above 40% turnout will be our votes.”


Iran Focus believes, however, that Khatami’s estimate is too low and that the turnout will be at least 10% higher than that at the 2004 parliamentary elections – an all-time low of 51%. This means that because of the moderate slogans of conservative and centrist candidates as well as the relatively unexpected success of the reformists, the turnout will be between 61% and 65%.


Iran Focus also believes that Rafsanjani and Moin will qualify for the second round of voting as none of the candidates will be able to attain the constitutional requirement of 50% of the vote for an outright victory in the first round. The reason why Iran Focus believes that Qalibaf, despite his  energetic campaign, is less likely to enter the second round is that Iranians are not as exhausted with reforms as they might be with Khatami’s style of executing them.


If this is true, the majority of Iranian voters who voted for reforms in the past plus the 1.75 million first-time voters – usually enthusiast participants – are less likely to vote for Qalibaf, who despite his success as police chief has been behind the arrests of reformist bloggers. Moreover, his association with the Leader might explain why the majority of those who vote for him are expected to be of the conservative camp.


The number of votes that will go to the less significant candidates, such as Ahmadinejad, Rezai and Larijani, are unlikely to change the number of the traditional votes of the conservative camp. Meanwhile, both Rafsanjani and Qalibaf are likely to win the conservatives some votes from reform-minded Iranians. Obviously, there is no way of finding out the exact number of these votes. But they will probably tip the balance in the election.


Calculations: There are at least 48 million eligible voters, according to the ministry of interior. Even if voter turnout stayed as low as 55%, that would imply 26.4 million votes. The conservatives, if past elections are a guide, do not have more than 9 million traditional voters. Assuming that Qalibaf and Rafsanjani will manage to add another 7 million to this on the basis of their “moderate” attitudes, the number of voters that will go to non-reformists will be 16 million.


And assuming that the usual 0.5 million blank votes will rise to 1 million, the reformists will not receive 17 million votes from the total 26.4 million. This leaves Moin, and possibly Karroubi and Mehralizafeh, with 9.4 million. Since Karroubi and Mehralizafeh, according to estimates of the interior ministry, conservative websites and those of many reformists, are not expected to receive a substantial proportion of the votes, it could be assumed that Moin will be able to secure about 8 million votes of the 9.4 million. Karroubi might even attract some of the conservatives’ traditional votes because of his promise to pay Iranians $55 a month. This means that the conservatives’ 16 million votes will be divided among two main candidates and three minor ones. This makes Moin a certain participant in the second round of the election even if two of the three minor conservative candidates withdraw.


Note that this is based on a 55% turnout while Iran Focus envisages a turnout going as high as 63%. Obviously, any higher turnout than 55% is expected to favour Moin. Iran Focus estimates that in this case Moin will win the election.


However, should Rafsanjani and Qalibaf defeat Moin and enter the second round, Rafsanjani is expected to win because many reformists will certainly prefer him to Qalibaf.


Should Rafsanjani or Qalibaf win a fair election process it would mean that either of the two or their combination has successfully attracted more than 7 million votes from those Iranians that are usually considered reformist supporters.

In that case, Iran’s ninth presidential election will have marked the beginning of a new era in Iran’s political history in which people believe the conservatives have realised their mistakes and are prepared to change. The more likely victory of Moin would, on the other hand, underpin the continuation of the past, only opening a new chapter in Iran’s democratisation.

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