Poll Highlights Rouhani’s Reelection Challenge

by Derek Davison

With all 1600-plus candidates now registered for next month’s Iranian presidential election, the results of a new public opinion survey by IranPoll suggest that incumbent President Hassan Rouhani may have a challenge on his hands if he hopes to win a second term. Assuming that Iran’s Guardian Council doesn’t disqualify him from running, Rouhani should be the favorite to win the May 19 contest (if no candidate gets over 50 percent of the vote in the first round, a runoff between the two top finishers will be held on May 26).

However, Rouhani faces serious questions from Iranian voters about his handling of the economy and the efficacy of his signature achievement, the nuclear deal he negotiated in July 2015 with the P5+1 group of nations (Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia, and the United States).

The IranPoll survey was conducted by telephone between April 11 and 14, as the candidate registration process was underway, using a sample of 1005 Iranians and has a margin of error of +/- 3.09 percent.

As Usual, It’s the Economy

The biggest concern for Rouhani is easily public views on the Iranian economy. An overwhelming majority (91 percent) of respondents describe their own economic situation as mediocre at best, with 37 percent saying “I get by,” 28 percent saying “I hardly get by,” and 26 percent saying “It is very difficult to get by.” Only 11 percent say that the Iranian economy has improved during Rouhani’s four years as president, with 35 percent saying it has deteriorated and 51 percent saying it hasn’t changed. And 64 percent describe the current state of the Iranian economy as either somewhat (35 percent) or very (29 percent) bad, while a slim majority (52 percent) say that it’s still getting worse.

Rouhani himself gets poor marks for his handling of the economy—55 percent of respondents say that he’s been either somewhat (29 percent) or very (26 percent) unsuccessful in addressing Iran’s economic challenges. When it comes to the nuclear deal, the crowning achievement of Rouhani’s first term, nearly three quarters of respondents (72 percent) say that ordinary Iranians have not seen their economic situation improve as a result of the agreement and the reduction of international sanctions.

The latter figure is particularly daunting for Rouhani. In the aggregate, key figures show that Iran’s economy has improved under Rouhani’s watch. Inflation, which was around 40 percent when Rouhani took office in 2013, has been reduced to ten percent or less depending on the measurement. The overall Iranian economy, which was contracting at an annual rate of almost six percent in 2013, grew in 2016 by roughly seven percent. And the nuclear deal, which has allowed Iran to greatly increase its oil exports and has led to billions of dollars in new foreign investment, can be credited for part of that growth.

But Rouhani has been unable to make these overall improvements pay off for the majority of Iranians. He’s failed to bring down the country’s double-digit unemployment rate—and in particular, he hasn’t fixed the over 30 percent unemployment rate among Iranian youth. Although many of the reasons for that have been systemic to the Iranian economy—high levels of corruption, the prevalence of quasi-private businesses owned by powerful figures in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and within Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s inner circle, and the weakness of the Iranian banking sector—it’s been easy for Rouhani’s opponents in hardline/principlist political circles to discredit his administration and the nuclear deal in the eyes of Iranians who are still struggling to get by. When IranPoll asked respondents to name the most important issue facing Iran’s next president, economic concerns—chiefly worries about unemployment (42 percent) and youth unemployment (13 percent)—dominated the list. Rouhani’s challenge will be to convince voters worried about unemployment that he can solve in his second term a problem that he was unable to solve in his first.

Rouhani Versus the Field

With all that said, Rouhani has two main things working in his favor. One is history—Rouhani’s four predecessors, going back to Khamenei who served as president from 1981 through 1989, have all won reelection to a second term, suggesting a certain preference for stability among the Iranian electorate and within Iran’s powerful religious establishment. The other is that, despite the unemployment rate, Rouhani’s approval rating remains high.

IranPoll asked respondents for their views on Rouhani and five of his most prominent challengers—former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Tehran Mayor (and second-place finisher behind Rouhani in 2013) Mohammad Ghalibaf, principlist cleric Ebrahim Raisi, Ahmadinejad’s former vice president Hamid Baghaei, and current vice president Eshaq Jahangiri (who registered to serve as a fallback in case Rouhani is disqualified by the Guardian Council).

Over three-fifths (62 percent) of respondents view Rouhani either very or somewhat favorably, a figure that’s only topped by Ghalibaf’s 67 percent approval rating, and Rouhani is seen as better equipped than Ghalibaf to tackle a range of challenges, including improving Iranian foreign relations, increasing civil liberties, and improving the lot of Iran’s poor. On the other hand, Ghalibaf does slightly better than Rouhani (33 percent to 27 percent) on who would best be able to reduce unemployment. Ahmadinejad’s approval rating stands at 52 percent, but there are strong hints coming out of the Iranian judicial establishment that suggest both he and Baghaei (who suffers from having very little name recognition) may be disqualified from running due to legal issues.

The dark horse candidate is Raisi, the conservative cleric currently serving as custodian of the Imam Reza shrine in Mashhad. The IranPoll survey shows that a plurality of Iranians (46 percent) don’t know who he is, which is a considerable challenge to overcome in only a month of campaigning. And there’s no guarantee that, as the public learns more about Raisi, they will view him favorably enough to support him over Rouhani. But Raisi is considered a favorite of Khamenei and a rising star within Iran’s religious establishment. His name has been bandied about as a possible successor to Khamenei when the 77-year-old Supreme Leader eventually passes. Although Raisi may have been encouraged to enter this race simply as a way to raise his national profile for an eventual appointment as Supreme Leader, it seems unlikely that someone of his stature would want to have the embarrassment of a losing presidential candidacy on his record. Were Raisi to lose to Rouhani and then succeed Khamenei with Rouhani still in office, it would raise uncomfortable questions about the actual power of the president versus the Supreme Leader. So despite his name recognition disadvantage, Raisi’s candidacy bears watching—particularly in a country with a managed, only partially democratic political system like Iran’s.

Ultimately, though, Rouhani many have a third thing going for him—disunity among his conservative opposition. Though it seems unlikely that either Ahmadinejad or Baghaei will be allowed to run, if even one does make it past the Guardian Council he will likely siphon votes away from Raisi and/or Ghalibaf. Indeed, Ghalibaf’s late decision to enter the race may help Rouhani as well. After strongly suggesting that he would stay out of the race to allow conservatives to coalesce behind Raisi, the Tehran mayor opted to run anyway, reflecting the inherent tensions within and between Iran’s conservative political circles. That said, unless Rouhani can get over 50 percent of the vote in the May 19 first round of voting, which he did in 2013 but may have a tougher time accomplishing this year, he will have to face one conservative challenger in the May 26 runoff, where the factionalism of Iran’s conservatives will be much less of a factor. And given the mood of the Iranian electorate, that contest may not go in Rouhani’s favor.

Rouhani’s reelection chances likely depend on his effectiveness as a campaigner over the next month. As IranPoll’s Amir Farmanesh told me, “By Western political norms, President Rouhani enjoys a relative high favorability (62%), even while 52% of Iranians think their economic situation is getting worse. Data clearly shows that Iranians are suffering when it comes to their livelihood and employment. The incumbent president is perceived as the best candidate to secure Iranians’ demands on many grounds. However, his promises on reducing unemployment are not perceived well. When unemployment is by far the deepest concern Iranians have, this is a perilous weakness that could be effectively exploited by his opponents. Much can change in the next few weeks. At this time, whoever makes the most credible promises on solving unemployment and alleviating economic perils could be the next president.”

Photo: 2017 presidential election registration day in Iran by Nastaran Dadjou via Wikimedia Commons

Derek Davison

Derek Davison is an analyst covering U.S. foreign policy and international affairs and the writer/editor of the newsletter Foreign Exchanges. His writing has appeared at LobeLog, Jacobin, and Foreign Policy in Focus.