Reformists will struggle in the presidential race in Iran
AS IRAN heads towards presidential polls in June, the contest is shaping into something of a referendum on the nature of the Islamic Republic. Thirty years after the fall of the shah, pride in the revolution is tempered by a widely shared sense that it has gone astray. Yet views differ radically over what ails Iran’s hybrid theo-democracy. More Islam is what some want, with a reimposition of puritanism at home, and boldness in foreign affairs. Others demand more republic, with a widening of civic freedoms and a government focused on bringing worldly rewards rather than achieving eternal glory.
Outside these two groups, known as principlists and reformists, stands a third camp. Sizeable and growing, it shuns politics altogether, judging that the non-elected theocratic elements of the state have simply grown too strong to dislodge by constitutional means. With the principlists, led by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, currently dominant, any electoral challenge to their rule would need to mobilise not just reformists committed to the system, but large numbers of those fence-sitters.
One reformist candidate seen as having the potential to inspire Iran’s disillusioned sceptics was Muhammad Khatami, a soft-spoken and liberal-minded cleric who won successive, sweeping victories to serve as president between 1997 and 2005. But Mr Khatami abruptly withdrew from the race on Monday March 16th, citing fears that, with two other prominent reformists determined to run, the reformist vote would again split, as it did in 2005, allowing Mr Ahmadinejad to romp into office. Yet while Mr Khatami’s departure dims reformist expectations of a big voter turnout, it has not altogether extinguished hopes for change.
Seen by much of the world as abrasive and inflammatory, Mr Ahmadinejad has built a strong constituency inside Iran. Religious hardliners praise his personal piety and humility. Some nationalists like his toughness on domestic security and in foreign affairs. And Mr Ahmadinejad has tirelessly toured the provinces, dispensing cash, infrastructure projects and folksy homilies to woo the poor. Yet millions of Iranians chafe under irksome limits to their freedom and blame their country’s international isolation on bellicose posturing by Mr Ahmadinejad. His spendthrift ways, they charge, have stoked raging inflation and burned windfall profits from several years of high oil prices, leaving state coffers empty now that prices for Iran’s main export have collapsed.
The president’s critics include not just reformists and outright dissidents but many within the principlist camp. Crucially, to date, Mr Ahmadinejad has enjoyed the not-so-subtle backing of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who during his 20 years in power has extended effective control over many institutions of state, including security forces, the judiciary and broadcasting monopolies. Mr Khamenei sees the incumbent president as a loyalist and ideological ally, yet is also sensitive to the danger that political polarisation poses to his Islamic regime.
This leads to speculation that the supreme leader may yet quietly promote a rival, but less controversial, principlist figure, such as Mohamed Qalibaf, who has proved himself a skilled administrator as mayor of Tehran, rather than Mr Ahmadinejad. Some leading principlists have also proposed a coalition conservative government that would dilute Mr Ahmadinejad’s role. Such quiet manoeuvring inside the principlist camp suggests a fear that either they, too, could find themselves split, or that the reformists will, despite Mr Khatami’s absence, actually succeed in galvanising new voters.
One of the remaining reformist candidates, Mir Hosein Mousavi, is seen as capable of attracting conservatives as well as liberals. Having served as prime minister during the traumatic 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, he has shied away from politics since then, and so remains something of an unknown. While his strong revolutionary credentials and socialist economic leanings attract hardliners, Mr Mousavi has charged Mr Ahmadinejad with promoting the Islam of bigotry by purging government of skilled technocrats in favour of ideologues. His reformist rival, Mehdi Karroubi, a liberal cleric and former speaker of parliament, has also boldly attacked the incumbent. Mr Karoubi has been ridiculed for proposing to spread oil revenues through cash handouts to the public, but he won only slightly fewer votes than Mr Ahmadinejad in 2005, and claims, credibly, that suspicious polling irregularities accounted for much of the difference.
There will probably be much rough and tumble before voting takes place on June 12th. Given the principlists’ strong core of voters, their control of key institutions, and their well-tested skill at using them, the reformists face a tough battle. But the implications of either a markedly low voter turnout, or an outright upset, could give pause to conservatives.