The Iranian presidential election taking place today was thrown into turmoil on Monday when the Mayor of Tehran, Mohammad-Baghar Ghalibaf, announced he was withdrawing his candidacy and instead supporting Ebrahim Raisi, a hardline cleric and prosecutor.
The move could consolidate hardline support behind Mr Raisi — who is known to be a favourite of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei — and potentially jeopardise the re-election of President Hasan Rouhani, widely seen as the frontrunner among the five remaining candidates.
The elections in the Islamic Republic are, of course, far from being free and fair. The Guardians Council vetted the list of no less than 1,636 candidates, leaving only six. It disqualified not only all the 137 women who put themselves forward and nearly all candidates with anything approaching reformist views, but also hardliners who have angered the leadership in the past, including former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
In the weeks leading up to the election there has also been a crackdown with arrests of journalists in Iran’s already heavily censored press and political activists.
But despite the suppression, there have been some interesting fault-lines in the Iranian establishment on display during the campaign.
What has been notable in the campaign rallies, online and in the three televised debates are the lengths that the two main hardline candidates, mr Raisi and Mr Ghalibaf, went to in trying to damage President Rouhani’s standing. He has been constantly accused of receiving donations from corrupt businessmen and of condoning corruption among his advisers and family members.
Although Iran officially hailed the nuclear deal signed two yeas ago as a triumph, Mr Rouhani, who took credit for it along with his foreign minister Mohammed Jawad Zarif, is now being vilified for having allowed “infiltration” from the West. Echoing these claims, the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), Mohammad Ali Jafari, said last month that “today, many of the officials running the country have liberal, Western, and counterrevolutionary views.”
The president is also being blamed for Iran’s stagnant economy, with little sign so far of any widespread benefits resulting the removal of international sanctions in the wake of the nuclear agreement.
Mr Raisi is running a campaign based on promises to fight poverty and corruption. In a recent speech, President Rouhani sought to focus voters’ minds on a dark chapter in Mr Raisi’s past, saying: “The people of Iran will announce in this election that they don’t accept those who only knew executions and prison for 38 years.” He was alluding to a five-month period in 1988 in which a group of Sharia judges, including Mr Raisi, sentenced thousands of political prisoners to death.
All factions in Iran see these elections as a crucial stage before the expected transition of power after the death of the ailing Supreme Leader Khamenei.
Mr Raisi is himself seen as a potential successor, if he wins the election. In 2009, claims of widespread fraud and vote-rigging in the re-election of President Ahmadinejad, then still the Ayatollah’s favoured candidate, led to the outbreak of widespread demonstrations across Iran which were ruthlessly suppressed by the IRGC’s local Baseej militias. The last-minute withdrawal of Mr Ghalibaf could be a sign that, once again, the hardliners are not prepared to leave anything to chance.