Washington, DC – This election is different. Ahmadinejad will run and he will be the man to beat. At the same time, the extent to which Ahmadinejad’s mismanagement of the economy and his office has become part of the Iranian political discourse is unprecedented. With the drop in oil prices and the specter of larger than expected budget deficits for the current fiscal year, talks of Ahmadinejad’s wrong-headed policies as well as incompetence are bound to increase; so is the possibility that he will be seriously challenged
The campaign for the presidency of Iran, to be decided on 12 June 2009 or a few weeks later if the contest goes to the second round, has already become heated, even if it is not yet clear who and how many will eventually run for the office.
Such early heat is rather unusual for an election that almost certainly will involve an incumbent running for his second term. Two term presidencies have been the norm after the turbulent early revolutionary years. No one entertained the possibility that the last three presidents might not be re-elected in their second runs.
This election is different. Ahmadinejad will run and he will be the man to beat. At the same time, the extent to which Ahmadinejad’s mismanagement of the economy and his office has become part of the Iranian political discourse is unprecedented. With the drop in oil prices and the specter of larger than expected budget deficits for the current fiscal year, talks of Ahmadinejad’s wrong-headed policies as well as incompetence are bound to increase; so is the possibility that he will be seriously challenged
So far only one person – Mehdi Karrubi of the National Trust Party – has declared his candidacy with the proviso that he might step aside if something like a council of mediating elders among the reformist and centrist forces settles for another candidate deemed more likely to be elected. Few believe that he will do so and his insistence on running may ultimately be the most important card he has in forcing the hand of the reformists to support him at the end. The reformists will be holding their noses if they decide to side with Karrubi. But this is a decision they will have to contemplate knowing that only agreement among centrist and reformist forces over one candidate will enhance their chances.
Alireza Alavi-Tabar, an astute observer of Iranian politics, recently suggested the reformists need to garner at least 5 million more votes than their opponents (about 47 million were eligible to vote in the last election and in the first round close to 30 million voted) in order to win. It is improbable that this 13 to 14 percent vote manipulation hurdle can be overcome in the likely scenario of only about 50 to 60 percent of eligible voters participating in the election. However, improbability is bound to turn into certainty if reformist and centrist groups enter the election with multiple candidates. Without compromise meager reformist and centrist chances will turn into nil.
But the election is still seven months away and the reformists are not yet in the mood for compromise. Their clamor has been to convince former president Khatami to run. He has remained coy about his intentions and is unlikely to run for two reasons.
First, he does not want to put himself through the abuse and obstacles that he will have to face both in running and governing. Khatami has gained respect as an elder statesman who remains politically engaged without holding office and speaks truth to power. He will only give up that position, as he said publicly, if he receives assurances from a wide spectrum of people, including some well-known conservatives or so-called principlists, that his next attempt at presidency will be different.
Khatami’s second reason is tactical. He knows that the principlists are divided over Ahmadinejad’s presidency and there are other conservative or center-right candidates – such as Tehran mayor Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf and former chief nuclear negotiator Hassan Rowhani – who are contemplating runs. But if Khatami runs, given his relative popularity, there will be tremendous pressure on all factions to the right of the political spectrum to close rank behind Ahmadinejad who after all is the current president and, given his name recognition and yes a degree of popularity, will have the best chance of winning in a manipulated competition against Khatami. This pressure will be based on the worry articulated in an editorial in the hard-line Kayhan that “the replacement for the current administration, if it has to go, is not going to be a principlist individual but someone outside the [principlist] current.
But Ahmadinejad’s low approval among the Iranian elite is a serious issue. His expansionist economic policies are now held responsible for the economic shock that may be in store for Iran if the drop in the price of oil persists. The Iranian parliament, under the leadership of Ali Larijani, has also already signaled that it will not easily give in to Ahmadinejad’s not carefully worked out attempt to revamp the Iranian economy.
Larijani himself has explicitly ruled out the possibility of challenging the president but has also said that given the implications of the global downturn for Iran, the country should begin its fourth post-revolutionary decade with a new “political logic” that avoids the extremisms of both the left and the right and rely on all the ‘managerial capabilities” that exist in the country among the reformists and principlists.
This is a statement of dissatisfaction with Ahmadinejad who has relied on a small circle of hard-line advisors. But even more so it reflects a yearning for the kind of politics that goes beyond the partisan divisiveness that has been further fanned during Ahmadinejad’s presidency. A new “political logic” simply means a logic that creates space for a less dysfunctional political system.
The issue for principlists critical of Ahmadinejad is not dissatisfaction with the current occupier of the office or the current state of affairs – they are clearly dissatisfied; but whether it is possible to dislodge him from office without risking the possibility of a reformist win. For them the best scenario entails the prospect of a crowded field that will open the way for a second round confrontation between Ahmadinejad and a more centrist, and presumably more competent, principlist candidate who will emerge victorious.
Given Iran’s hyper-politicized environment, this scenario is not easy to implement. But the machinations within Iran’s various political camps to devise a game plan that will lead to electoral victory, while being mindful of Ahmadinejad’s concrete failures, will keep the Iranian political dynamics fluid for the next seven months.
Prof. Farideh Farhi is an independent researcher and an adjunct professor of political science at the University of Hawai’i.