Iran’s Conservatives Lose a Presidential Election and More

by Farideh Farhi

In the past two decades, Iranian presidential elections have been accompanied with surprising results and even tumult. Newcomers have won against better known and financed politicians while presumed establishment candidates and assumed winners have done poorly. This time around, the surprise was not in the results but the blunt conversation generated by the campaign and the skeptical way the voters assessed the promises of the candidates. Current President Hassan Rouhani was reelected relying on a motto that emphasized continuity and improving on the course that his election initiated in 2013. A solid majority of voters responded to this motto of “we shall not return to the past.” Had he not been reelected, that would have been a surprise. But the convincing way he won in the midst of an all-out assault by his opponents against his governing record requires explanation.

At this point it is not possible to do an analysis of the composition of the vote. The Interior Ministry has yet to release detailed data about precincts or even provinces. Governors of various provinces have released information about the total number of votes for each candidate, but not all provinces have done so. Hence, any comments about urban-rural or middle class vs. poor neighborhood splits are not warranted. If anything, the general information about the provinces suggests that the kind of splits proposed in the press may not hold. For instance, many of the provinces with higher rural concentration tended toward Rouhani while the highly urban (and religious) province/city of Qom went to his opponent Ebrahim Raisi (55 percent). So have the three Khorasan provinces that have historically been dominated by the Imam Reza Shrine, for which Raisi is the custodian (Raisi has reportedly also won in Hamedan, Semnan, and Zanjan provinces). Furthermore, the spread in the other provinces is quite varied, with Rouhani scoring more than 65 percent in provinces such as Tehran, both East and West Azerbaijan, Kermanshah, and Albroz, more than 70 percent in Kordestan and Sistan and Baluchistan, while achieving much closer margins in some other provinces.

Still, there is no question that Rouhani was re-elected convincingly. To be sure, Rouhani was also elected in 2013 by a wide margin against his multiple opponents when he received slightly over 50 percent of the vote and his closest opponent garnered only 16 percent of the vote. His surprising victory in 2013 was made possible through an alliance of reformists, moderates, and some middle-of-the-road conservatives, an alliance that also proved successful in the 2016 parliamentary election. But his slightly over 50 percent vote in that election gave his conservative opponents—identified as principlists inside Iran—the impression that if they managed to unify around a single candidate, and focus on the continued economic ills of the country, they could prevent his re-election. Using a semi-democratic process, they eventually did manage to unify behind the candidacy of Raisi, a former high-ranking member of the judiciary and current custodian of the well-endowed Imam Reza Shrine. But their candidate proved weak in both formulating his message as well as delivering it.

In the end, despite an increase in eligible voters by six million since the 2013 presidential election, the total vote cast for Raisi (close to 16 million) was slightly less than the total number of votes Rouhani’s separate conservative opponents received in 2013. In other words, unity did nothing to expand support for the principlist camp. Meanwhile, Rouhani bettered his 2013 record significantly by expanding the number of votes garnered from about 18.6 million to 23.5 million.

How Rouhani managed this accomplishment is the story of this election. A lackluster campaign of 55-60 percent turnout would have posed a real danger to his re-election. Instead a savvy campaign produced a 73 percent turnout by transforming Rouhani into a good-humored and caring father figure who insisted that his opponent’s proposed policies endangered the progress and stability the country had enjoyed since the 2013 election. Rouhani bluntly stated that these policies risked war in the international arena and economic ruin, political closures, cultural restrictions, and turmoil at home.

Raisi’s Clumsy Campaign

It is not yet clear why Raisi challenged a sitting president just a few days after he had publicly insisted on his absolute commitment to the Imam Reza Shrine. Recently appointed custodian by Iran’s leader Ayatollah Khamenei, Raisi said he wanted to focus on the affairs of the Shrine. Raisi’s relative youth, his exclusive experience in the judiciary, and his previous reluctance to be in the public eye made him an unlikely candidate for a demanding executive position. A better time for him to run would have been in 2021, after a few years of administering a religious endowment (probably Iran’s largest economic conglomerate) and when he did not have to run against a more experienced sitting president.

But his recent appointment to the Imam Reza Shrine had fanned speculation about his potential candidacy for the position of Supreme Leader. Perhaps these speculations convinced the alliance of principlist organizations and groups that someone perceived as “the Leader’s candidate”—a perception the international media readily consumed and repeated by as well—boosted Raisi’s chances. Or perhaps Raisi was convinced that he needed a stint as president before he could become a viable contender for the position of Leader.

Whatever the reason, his emergence as the main Rouhani opponent, and the way he conducted his campaign, was a godsend for the incumbent president. It polarized the political environment and clarified the stakes for the electorate in the last two weeks of the campaign. To be sure, Raisi initially tried to position himself as a candidate that stood above Iran’s political factions. In the first week of his campaign, posters even appeared that represented him as promoter of both Islamic principles and reform. For a very short period, they even tried to frame him as similar to reformist Mohammad Khatami, Iran’s still popular former president and also a black turbaned seyed who traces lineage to Prophet Mohammad. However, Raisi’s inexperience in the face of public scrutiny, lack of charisma, and competition with the other main principlist candidate—Tehran mayor Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf—prevented him from maintaining that position.

Caught off-guard by Qalibaf’s very aggressive attacks against Rouhani’s government in the first televised debate, Raisi’s quieter demeanor also turned aggressive and populist in the second and third debates as well as on the campaign trail. His campaign’s sole focus became the dispossessed. Like Qalibaf, his rendition of the state of the Islamic Republic turned outright dark, replete with absolute misery and poverty, economic inequality, and corruption. Policy-wise, like the Tehran mayor, Raisi promised to increase substantially cash grants to the poor, uproot widespread corruption in the Islamic Republic’s bureaucracy, and reject Rouhani’s “reliance on the outside world” to help Iran’s economy. Astonishingly for someone who has spent his whole career in Iran’s judiciary—a body responsible for Iran’s high execution record and partisan imprisonment of political opponents—he even held Rouhani responsible for stifling political dissent. Although he did not call for the abandonment of the nuclear agreement, Raisi claimed that he could handle its implementation better. By the time Qalibaf withdrew in Raisi’s favor in the last week of the campaign, there was little difference in positioning between the two.

With an eye on the need for voter motivation, the more politically astute Rouhani turned Raisi’s criticisms against him. If Qalibaf and Raisi were going to represent the Islamic Republic as rife with socioeconomic inequality, corruption, and repression, then surely Rouhani could also become blunt and break taboos in his criticism of institutions such as the judiciary in allowing such a dour state of affairs. More significantly, he could also remind people that Raisi, despite his attempted positioning as above the factional fray, had surrounded himself with hardliners and conservatives who advocated cultural and political restrictions and promoted an adventurist foreign policy. Rouhani’s coup de grace was his suggestion that Raisi was using the resources of the Imam Reza Shrine, “which belongs to all Iranians,” for partisan purposes.

By the end of the campaign, Rouhani had added voters who had become genuinely fearful of Raisi to voters who thought that four years is not enough for any president to implement his promised course. A campaign that had begun with criticism of Rouhani’s handling of the economy in the post-nuclear agreement era was now being described as “fateful” by many voters in setting the cultural and political direction of the country for the years to come. “I know these people,” thundered Rouhani in one of his rallies. “They want to put a curtain on the sidewalks and separate men and women.” Raisi complained about the “fear mongering” against him to no avail.

The Biggest Losers  

If Raisi was badly hurt in this election, it was Tehran Mayor Qalibaf who completely forfeited his political future. This was his third presidential run, and he adopted a different persona in each campaign. First he was a flashy modernist executive worthy of comparison to the first king of the Pahlavi dynasty who built Iran through his authoritative and forceful personality. Then he was a Jihadi manager. And this time he was represented the 96 percent of Iran’s population whose livelihood was being “sucked” by the top four percent of the population. These successive incarnations exposed Qalibaf as an opportunist who will say anything to win, including a promise of increasing cash grants five-fold that few believed. More importantly, with the complete reformist sweep in Tehran’s 21-member municipal council election, he will no doubt be replaced after 12 years of ironclad control of the city. His likely replacement will be Mohsen Hashemi, the eldest son of former president Hashemi Rafsanjani. Hashemi received almost three times as many votes as the current conservative chair of the council, Mostafa Chamran, who came in 22nd and will only make it to the council if Hashemi or another elected reformist is chosen as mayor.

But by far the biggest loser in this election was the conservative alliance itself. It put forth all the candidates it could muster. The Guardian Council did not qualify several of their candidates and those qualified were badly hurt (in the case of Qalibaf, fatally) in this election. Its promise of a figure that could both unify the principlists and also gain popular support remains unmistakably unfulfilled. What this reality of repeated failure in the electoral game means for the principlist camp is yet to be decided.

On the other side, the reformists not only helped the centrist Rouhani win re-election. They also managed to introduce to the Iranian such candidates as First Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri, who unabashedly declared himself a reformist and performed well during the televised debates only to withdraw in Rouhani’s favor. These candidates may end up as serious presidential contenders once Rouhani’s term is over. The reformists have apparently also done very well in the council elections of other major cities besides Tehran, including Isfahan, Shiraz, Tabriz, and even the city of Mashhad, the seat of Imam Reza Shrine. They have once again shown that they can run better-organized campaigns and motivate voters despite severe restrictions imposed by the conservatives’ control of non-elective institutions and positioning of the state media against them. Meanwhile, Iranian citizens, by keeping electoral politics alive and meaningful, continue to reshape the basic tension that frames the Islamic Republic.

Photo: Ebrahim Raisi (right) at Friday prayers in Tehran (Wikimedia Commons)

Farideh Farhi

Farideh Farhi is an Independent Scholar and Affiliate Graduate Faculty at the University of Hawai'i at Manoa. She has taught comparative politics at the University of Colorado, Boulder, University of Hawai'i, University of Tehran, and Shahid Beheshti University, Tehran. Her publications include States and Urban-Based Revolutions in Iran and Nicaragua , Power and Change in Iran: Politics of Contention and Conciliation (co-edited with Dan Brumberg), and numerous articles and book chapters on comparative analyses of revolutions and Iranian politics. She has been a recipient of grants from the United States Institute of Peace and the Rockefeller Foundation and Public Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. She has also worked as a consultant for the World Bank and the International Crisis Group.



  1. Thank you for this clear and interesting explanation of such an important election, which puts to shame the farce which the USA uses to put into power a group of incompetent partisan “representatives” and a POTUS thirsting for war and disruption.

  2. Amazing analysis. It should receive more exposure.

  3. It is bizarre that the day after such a vibrant and competitive election in Iran when over 73% of eligible voters returned a moderate president to power, President Trump goes to the heart of the most fanatical version of Islam, which has provided the ideology behind Al Qaeda and ISIS, and declares his solidarity with the unelected ruler of a medieval monarchy engaged in the massacre of the unfortunate people in Yemen, and sells tens of billions of dollars worth of weapons and demonizes Iran. What message is this going to send to the region and to the Islamic world? That visit and that clumsy speech have demeaned America and have undermined the cause of freedom and democracy in the world for the sake of a few pieces of silver.

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