The Islamic Republic of Iran is certainly no democracy, at least in the Western sense. It consistently ranks as an authoritarian regime on the Democracy Index and as “Not Free” by Freedom in the World. Yet, on May 19th, Iranian citizens will exercise their democratic right to choose their next leader (from a slate of six candidates chosen by the Guardian Council). This will be the first presidential election in Iran since the much-discussed nuclear deal was signed. The aftereffects of the deal are a contentious issue in this election, since the current president, Hassan Rouhani is running for reelection. Rouhani promoted the deal domestically as a way to improve the standard of living for ordinary Iranians though the lifting of international sanctions. However, 72 percent of Iranians don’t believe the deal improved their standard of living.
Aside from Rouhani, five other candidates are participating: Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri, Astan Quds Razavi chairman Ebrahim Raisi, Tehran Mayor Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, Mostafa Mir-Salim and Mostafa Hashemitaba. Raisi, Ghalibaf, and Mir-Salim are regarded as conservatives, or hardliners, Jahangiri and Rouhani are moderates, and Hashemitaba is a reformist. In recent years, however, Iranian moderates and reformists have become closer in their views, especially with the death of Rafsanjani, one of the moderate leaders. Among the rejected candidates was Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a conservative former president known for his colorful statements on Israel. Nonetheless, Ahmadinejad’s populism remains popular among rural Iranians.
While polls do show Rouhani as being comfortably in the lead, polling in Iran has been historically unreliable. In addition, 56% of Iranians believe that Rouhani is “very likely” or “somewhat likely” to lose the election. Ghalibaf, who came in second last time around, is the primary alternative. Ultimately, this election will come down to one this: the economy. If voters are satisfied with Rouhani’s economic program, he is likely to win. If not, he will quite possibly face defeat. Reducing corruption is also an important (albeit secondary) issue, especially when Iran’s high levels of corruption are taken into account. In addition, the previously mentioned nuclear deal will be high on voters’ minds, at least when it comes to how it will affect the economy.
The results of this election will also have a significant impact on the rest of the world, especially the Middle East. If Rouhani wins and the moderates gain traction, Iranian intervention in Syria in support of the al-Assad government will achieve additional international legitimacy. In addition, a conservative victory could mean that Iran will cease complying the nuclear deal. The new president will also no doubt be influenced by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who holds ultimate power (although he rarely uses it) and has extremely conservative views, as well as his close ally, Ahmad Jannati.