Iran Runoff Election Has Long-Term Implications

As a result of the closest election since 1979, Iranians went to the polls a second time in the last two weeks Friday in an unprecedented runoff election to decide between two very dissimilar individuals to be their president.

Because none of the five candidates were able to garner more than half of the popular vote, the choice comes down to the top two vote-getters: 71-year-old Shiite cleric and former Iran President (1989-97) Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who received nearly 21% of the vote, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a 49-year-old former “ultra” conservative Tehran mayor and special forces officer of the Revolutionary Guard who astounded Iranian election officials by receiving more than 19%.

Pre-election polls had Ahmadinejad well out of the running, which has led to charges of voter fraud and intimidation tactics by the Revolutionary Guard from other candidates and the media. After the election, the third-place finisher Mahdi Karroubi criticized Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei–the real source of power in Iran who can overrule the president–and the council of un-elected clerics, accusing the religious leaders of using “coup-like” tactics. 

The Iranian government has subsequently closed down three newspapers for publishing critical commentaries regarding the election.

“His [Ahmadinejad’s] second place was a huge surprise, even to the conservative establishment,” said Mohammed Hadi Semati, a visiting scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C. “President Bush might have increased the share of Iran’s conservative vote with his criticism of the election process.” 

The day preceding the election, Bush said, “Power is in the hands of an unelected few who have retained power through an electoral process that ignores the basic requirements of democracy. The June 17 presidential elections are sadly consistent with this oppressive record.”

Due to the perceived lack of a suitable candidate, reformist citizens boycotted the polls, adding to Ahmadinejad’s surge, said Wayne White, a scholar at the Middle East Institute. Regardless, Ahmadinejad made the runoff, and there couldn’t be more striking differences between the two candidates.

Called the wealthiest man in Iran, Rafsanjani is trying to reinvent himself by updating his image as a “pragmatic conservative.” During his two previous terms as president, Iran had been denounced by the United States for widespread human rights abuses.

To appeal to young, educated voters, Rafsanajani has spruced up his image by using a Beatles album title, “Let It Be,” in his campaign advertising and the slogan, “We should not be frozen in the past.” He even utilized his wife in the campaign on issues relating to women’s rights.

Rafsnajani has vowed to seek foreign investment for an economy that is, “predominantly centrally planned and overly dependent on oil revenues,” Semati said. Iran’s social stability is also a factor. Semati added, “With a population of more than 70 million people, one out of every two Iranians is under the age of 25.” A recent BBC economic forecast estimates that Iran must create almost 1 million new jobs every year just for it’s double-digit unemployment rate to remain at its current level.

“He certainly has the clout to convince some of the quarters in Iranian politics on national security issues, and to get support for reform in Iran,” said Semati. “That’s why so many moderates now support him for president.”

Ahmadinejad, meanwhile, campaigned under the message of loyalty to the tenants of the existing theocratic style of government that is currently in place in Iran. One of his most significant achievements while mayor of Tehran was to convert the city’s cultural centers to religious centers. He has also called for Iran to be an example of the Shiite vision of “global Islam,” and has expressed little interest for renewing relations with the United States.

Iranian business leaders expressed concern that Ahmadinejad will slow efforts to attract foreign investment and attract investors to the Tehran Stock Exchange.  He campaigned as a man of the working people, “I am the people’s candidate,” he declared after the election. And has proved to be very popular in rural areas and among the poor.

There are more than 46 million Iranians eligible to vote, said Semati. He expects more than the 68% that turned out turnout before.

“The conservatives are going to be mobilized again.” However, he said he believes that Rafsanjani can win. “The votes that the other candidates who were eliminated received represent a more moderate part of the population. If they turn out, and that is the key, then I believe that Rafsanjani will win.”