Iran to elect new president with economy on voters’ minds

Contest between moderate incumbent Hassan Rouhani and hardliner Ebrahim Raisi

 Iranian president and candidate in the imminent presidential election, Hassan Rouhani, at Hasheminejad international airport in the northeastern city of Mashhad on May 17th, 2017.  Photograph: Behrouz Mehri/AFP/Getty Images

Iranian president and candidate in the imminent presidential election, Hassan Rouhani, at Hasheminejad international airport in the northeastern city of Mashhad on May 17th, 2017. Photograph: Behrouz Mehri/AFP/Getty Images

 

Iran’s 55 million voters are set to cast ballots in a presidential election on Friday which could determine whether Tehran will continue re-engaging with the international community or revert to isolationist policies.

The contest is between moderate incumbent Hassan Rouhani (68), who has opened Iran to external trade and investment, and conservative hardliner Ebrahim Raisi (56), who seeks to install a “resistance” or “self-sufficient economy” and shun external financial entanglements.

While Mr Rouhani had a solid lead in polls conducted last week, his lead may have shrunk as election day has approached.

The regime has urged voters to flock to the polls – a high turnout will favour Mr Rouhani, while renewing the legitimacy of the cleric-dominated regime.

Iran’s seventh president, elected in 2013, Mr Rouhani succeeded in securing agreement on Iran’s nuclear programme, the partial lifting of sanctions, and restoration of relations with the West. A middle-ranking cleric, he is a lawyer, former diplomat and member of the clerical bodies which control the political life of the country.

Influential support

Mr Rouhani has attracted the influential support of the Hassan Khomeini, the grandson of Ayatollah Rouhallah Khomeini, founder of the Islamic Republic which overthrew the Pahlavi dynasty in 1979.

If Mr Rouhani wins, he intends to continue his outreach to the international community, to ease conservative social practices and to boost human rights.

A girl holds a poster of Iranian presidential candidate Ebrahim Raisi during a campaign rally in Tehran, Iran, May 17th, 2017. Photograph: Tima/Reuters
A girl holds a poster of Iranian presidential candidate Ebrahim Raisi during a campaign rally in Tehran, Iran, May 17th, 2017. Photograph: Tima/Reuters

An associate of Iran’s conservative supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Mr Raisi chairs the country’s oldest and richest charitable organisation, Astan Qudi Razavi Institute. His service as deputy prosecutor during the 1988 mass executions of opponents of the ruling clerics has caused an outcry among human rights activists.

Mr Raisi has also served on the Assembly of Experts, which chooses the supreme leader, and he has been touted as a potential successor to Khamenei (77). Defeat in the presidential election could torpedo his chances.

If Mr Raisi is victorious he could restrict relations with the West and maintain tight controls on social behaviour.

Stringent vetting

Six candidates out of 1,600 who put their names forward survived stringent vetting by the Council of Guardians, a conservative clerical body which decides who runs of office and gains senior posts in the administration. Four remain.

Progressive vice-president Eshaq Jahangiri withdrew to back Mr Rouhani, while Tehran mayor Mohamed Bagher Qalibaf pulled out in favour of Mr Raisi. The two other candidates, both former ministers, are no-hopers.

The main issue is the economy, not the 2015 deal to dismantle Iran’s nuclear programme in exchange for the easing of sanctions. Both moderates and conservatives seek to abide by the nuclear deal and insist its sponsors – the US, UK, France, China, Russia and Germany – must honour their commitments.

Iranian presidential candidate Ebrahim Raisi at a campaign rally in the capital, Tehran, in April 2017. Photograph: Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images
Iranian presidential candidate Ebrahim Raisi at a campaign rally in the capital, Tehran, in April 2017. Photograph: Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images

Since the deal came into effect, Iran’s oil exports, its chief revenue source, have increased to three million barrels a day, the highest level since 1979, and trade with Europe has increased three-fold. The EU is ready to co-operate on nuclear power stations and developing renewable energy resources.

Although Mr Rouhani has boosted the growth rate from minus 5.4 to plus 5.8 per cent and reduced inflation from 44 to 9 per cent, ordinary Iranians have not benefitted.

Rampant corruption

Sanctions still prevent the free flow of goods and services and discourage investment in the oil sector, Iran’s main revenue source, and other enterprises. Iran’s obstructive bureaucracy and rampant corruption have also impeded growth.

Unemployment stands at 12.5 per cent, rising to 25 per cent among the young. The income gap between rich and poor has ballooned over the past decade. Between 45-55 per cent of rural and urban Iranians live below the poverty line.

Entrenched interests of businessmen, the clergy and the military have prevented Mr Rouhani from addressing both corruption and poverty during his first term in office. If he wins he will have to face obstruction of reforms which Iranians demand.

If victorious, Mr Raisi is likely to defend the status quo.

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