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A Giant Step towards Election Engineering: Candidate Alignment and Campaign Manipulation


Six Presidential nominees Clockwise; Raeisi, Mirsalim, Rouhani, Ghalibaf, Hashemitaba, Jahangiri.

Islamic Republic of Iran's elections vetting body, the Guardian Council, has approved the qualifications of only six candidates while rejecting 29 other prominent nominees, including former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and numerous ministers, governors, MPs, heads of official funds and administrations.

The election date is set for May 19.

Qualified or not, all the prominent candidates are believed to be obedient followers of the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Therefore, it seems that there are new rules for selecting the favorite candidates, regardless of the old conditions set by the constitution and ideological necessities for filtering the candidates. Based on the new guideline, being loyal to the Supreme Leader is still necessary but not enough to qualify a nominee as a presidential candidate.

The new approach is, in fact, the most important step toward ‘engineering the election’ i.e. setting the candidates on the stage, in desired positions, and directing the campaigns on the ideal course chosen by the Supreme Leader. In this new approach, five main points highlight the obsession and concerns of the ruling establishment:

Balancing the Factions

Out of six approved candidates, three (Hassan Rowhani, Eshaq Jahangiri and Hashemi-Taba) are on the side of the so-called ‘moderate’ government, led by the incumbent president Hassan Rowhani.

The other three belong to the conservative faction, opposing Mr. Rowhani and his cabinet.

The latter (mid rank hard line cleric and custodian of Imam Reza shrine, Ebrahim Raisi, Tehran Mayor, Mohammad-Baqir Qalibaf, a conservative former military commander of Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, IRGC, Mostafa Mirsalim, a member of the extreme right leaning ‘Islamic Coalition Party’) are unified under the banner of ‘Ossoolgarayan’ or ‘Principlists’.

In picking these candidates, the Guardian Council has aimed to balance the factions even in equalizing the number of approved nominees. This is exactly an approach that was left aside and ignored by ayatollah Khamenei in 2005 and 2009 presidential elections. Now, it looks like the heavy price for openly siding with the conservatives and ignoring the necessity of balancing the factions in presidential elections have forced him to adopt a new approach.

It is worth noting that the flawed election in 2009 sparked the Green Movement, which brought tens of thousands into the streets and led to a brutal crackdown with hundreds of people detained. The government officially declared at least 27 were killed during the protests but human rights groups put the death toll higher.

That’s why the Supreme Leader is resolved to avoid repeating such a bitter experience now. As a matter of fact, in the past five years, he has been contemplating on how to engineer the next elections and eliminate any pretext for a popular uprising. So, in the May 19 election, the equality of the factions and balancing them will be the name of the game.

No to Bi-Polar Race

‘Don’t worry about the turn-out’, ayatollah Khamenei and his ruling apparatus have decided. Their main target is to manage the election, as smoothly as possible. That is why former president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his close aide, Hamid Baqai were disqualified.

Ayatollah Khamenei has made it quite clear that he hates having another bi-polar race. His advice to Mr. Ahmadinejad to stay out of the race was rooted in this new approach. Mr. Ahmadinejad ignored the advice, so he was simply disqualified and thrown out of the ring. 'No controversy this time', the Supreme Leader has decided.

No Stoking Needed

The initial decision (later reversed) to refrain from airing presidential debates live is another reflection of setting the stage for a smooth election procedure far from any unpredictable development or unwanted controversy.

Recent suspension of seven Islamic Societies and arraigning fifty student rights activists are also the result of the new approach in engineering the May 19 election.

The ruling clique does n-o-t want any sort of agitated atmosphere either, even at the price of a low level voter participation. Surely, a significant turn out will be welcomed but, if it does not happen, the establishment is not going to be concerned too much.

Let’s Go for a Tri-Polar Election

The ruling clique most desired version for the May 19 election is a tri-polar competition.

The Supreme Leader, IRGC commanders, Security heads and the Guardian Council know well that Jahangiri and Hashemi-Taba have thrown their hats into the ring as the back-ups for the incumbent president. It is expected that these two will quit the race sooner or later, in favor of president Rowhani.

The ruling clique also knows that Mostafa Mirsalim, a hardliner conservative, has no chance of receiving a significant chunk of votes. He is also believed to leave the scene sooner or later.

Then, the ideal stage will be set for a tri-polar race between the incumbent, who is considered a moderate and two conservative candidates, Raisi and Qalibaf. Later, Mr. Qalibaf is expected to exit the race as well, in favor of Mr. Raisi.

Meanwhile, if Mirsalim and Qalibaf insist to remain in the race, Mr. Jahangiri is going to stay in, as well; hoping to gain some of the votes of those who have decided not to support Mr. Rowhani. In such a scenario, there will be a quartet election which is not the regime’s most desirable setting, but still much better than a bi-polar one.

Votes: Raisi v Qalibaf

Tehran Mayor, Mohammad-Baqir Qalibaf is facing two legal cases. He is accused of financial corruption, distributing astronomical sums of money among persons close to him. He is also accused of illegally employing four thousand panegyrists, offering them extremely high salaries to be employed at Tehran Underground network.

Therefore, his chance to win the election is quite slim. Furthermore, he has been twice defeated in previous elections. As a rule, transforming former losers into winners is next to impossible. Nevertheless, the regime is going to keep him in the race until the final stage to use him as a spearhead in attacking the incumbent and, in the meantime, gaging his popularity. If Mr. Raisi fails to attract enough voters to defeat the incumbent, the presence of Mr. Qalibaf will guarantee a bi-polar election. That’s why the military and security institutions are constantly conducting polling as well as measuring voters’ mood. The day to day results of the polling are presented exclusively to the Supreme Leader, senior IRGC and security commanders.

To sum up, it seems highly likely that the May 19 election is going to be a duel between the incumbent and Mr. Raisi. The Supreme Leader, as well as senior military and security commanders are set to make it a duel without controversy and violent consequences. However, time and again, Iran has proved to be the land of surprises.

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    Majid Mohammadi

    Iranian sociologist and political analyst residing in the U.S., who contributed opinion and analysis to Radio Farda.

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