Two recent polls reveal that Ebrahim Raeesi is gaining support for his bid to become the country’s next president. 

Raeesi, the favorite candidate of Iran’s conservative politicians, media and clergy, is rising in two separate polls, one conducted from outside Iran and one by a domestic agency.

According to a survey by the Iranian Students Polling Agency (ISPA), which is affiliated with Tehran University, Raeesi is now second in the presidential lineup, enjoying the support of 26.7 percent of the voters, putting him ahead of Tehran’s mayor Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, the other key conservative candidate. And a recent survey by the US-based company IPPO Group puts him in third place, with a rise of 9 percent. 

In addition to taking part in two televised debates and other campaign events, since registering to run in April, Raeesi has addressed crowds in Tehran and in 14 provinces, with the majority of those speeches taking place between April 28 and May 10. This is seven times the number of speeches given by Ghalibaf. Raeesi’s wife, Jamileh Elmolhoda, his campaign manager Ali Nikzad, and his most prominent supporter Saeed Jalili, who was chief nuclear negotiator under former President Ahmadinejad, have also gone out on the campaign trail, delivering speeches across the country.

There is no doubt that the Raeesi campaign has been extremely active, but it is actually the culmination of a long-term tactic, or is at least benefitting from one. Over the last four years, Jalili had traveled to most Iranian provinces, laying the groundwork for the 2017 presidential election season and building trust among some of the country’s most underprivileged communities. After Jalili decided not to run for president and threw his support behind Raeesi, the campaign seeds that he had sown were naturally made available to Raeesi. The support he is seeing now is a direct product of that work. 

His supporters have built a successful, dynamic publicity campaign for Raeesi, organizing well-attended events and casting him as a candidate who will serve ordinary, religious voters well. Raeesi is the guardian of Astan Quds Razavi, the wealthiest religious endowment in Iran, and his campaign has been able to tap into the fund, which is not answerable to the government’s executive branch. He also enjoys direct organizational support from the Revolutionary Guards and the paramilitary Basij volunteer force. 

 

Raeesi as Robin Hood?

Some of the country’s most well-known religious and principlist figures have also put their support behind Raeesi’s campaign. They have used populist rhetoric to highlight the division between Iran’s haves and have-nots and to portray Raeesi as the champion of the poor against the rich.

Most of Iran’s ultra-conservative media have covered Raeesi’s campaign extensively, an honor not bestowed on his rival Ghalibaf, who is less popular with these news agencies and websites. 

A number of media outlets have speculated that Ghalibaf’s sharp attacks on President Rouhani and his “back-up” candidate Vice President Eshagh Jahangiri actually helped Raeesi. They argue that because Raeesi did not go on the attack from the start as Ghalibaf did, he emerged from the debate in a more positive light. Of course, in the second debate Raeesi did, to a certain extent, challenge Rouhani, and in recent days, Rouhani has attacked Raeesi more than he has Ghalibaf.

Raeesi’s opponents have drawn attention to both his role in the 1988 mass execution of political prisoners and his anti-democratic stance throughout his career, but so far there is little evidence that these reminders have made a deep enough impression. The main reason for this is that, for the most part, it has been the media outside Iran rather than the domestic media that have exposed Raeesi’s dark past.

But does it really matter that Raeesi is rising in the polls?

Looking back at the history of Iran’s presidential elections, the winners of three important ones — 1997, 2005 and 2013 — had done relatively badly in the polls, and then, with little time to go, surged upward and eventually claimed victory. Mohammad Khatami (1997), Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (2005) and Hassan Rouhani (2013) all ran vigorous campaigns that pulled together supporters from various segments of society. Although Raeesi is gaining support, polls do not suggest he has built the same number of new supporters that these candidates did. It seems unlikely that, with a little more than a week to go until the election, he can pull the same thing off. Still, the rise in the polls cannot be dismissed.  

According to ISPA’s most recent survey, when the Iranian public was asked whom they would vote for if the only candidates were Rouhani and Raeesi, 38.7 percent chose Raeesi while 47.7 percent picked Rouhani. But the fact is that Raeesi is doing better in the polls, and that more voters regard him as a serious contender to Rouhani. So, after a short period where it seemed as though Ghalibaf was Rouhani’s most dangerous rival, it is clear that Raeesi is once again the man Rouhani and his team must watch. They are well aware of the risks he poses.

How Rouhani and Raeesi position themselves in the coming days will be interesting to watch. And how the electorate will respond is not by any means predictable.

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