In 2005, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was elected as president of the Islamic Republic of Iran, a surprise victory that shocked Iran and the rest of the world. A former teacher, engineer and mayor of Tehran, he rapidly rose in popularity to beat Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who he successfully portrayed as a member of the country’s privileged elite.
In the run up to the 2017 election, the emergence of Ebrahim Raeesi as the most likely candidate to defeat President Hassan Rouhani has drawn comparisons with the surge of support for Ahmadinejad in 2005. But how much do the two elections really have in common, and how likely is Raeesi to become the next president of Iran?
What do the two elections have in common?
1. Polarizing Propaganda: During the 2017 election season, conservative efforts to polarize society and turn Rouhani into a symbol of corruption and aristocracy resembles similar tactics used to discredit Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani in 2005. As in 2005, principlist politicians and media have harped on about the divide between “the haves” and “have-nots.” In both campaigns, the working class was targeted as the primary audience for this kind of propaganda.
2. The Undecided Voter: Also similar is the number of undecided voters, and those who refuse to say how they will vote. According to the most recent poll by the American research firm iPOS, 46 percent of Iranian voters are either undecided or have not revealed how they will vote.
3. The Unexpected Conservative Frontrunner: The emergence of Ebrahim Raeesi and his rise in the polls bears similarities with the way Mahmoud Ahmadinejad rose in popularity during the 2005 presidential campaign. This rise is especially noticeable in villages and small towns. Speaking on May 16, Vice President Eshagh Jahangiri called on Rouhani’s supporters to be more active in these areas.
In polls conducted in the spring of 2005, Ahmadinejad came eighth. In early summer, he was third or fourth, and by mid-summer he had won 19.5 percent of the votes compared with Rafsanjani’s 21 percent, resulting in a runoff. According to a survey by iPOS, Raeesi’s poll numbers rose from 12 percent on May 6 to 21 percent on May 15. After Tehran’s mayor, Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, dropped out of the race, Raeesi is polling somewhere around 30 percent. For somebody who has never competed in an election and has a weak political record and no experience working in the executive branch of government — Ahmadinejad had more experience and a stronger record — this number is very good.
4. The Influence of the Revolutionary Guards: Although its top commanders have remained silent, the Revolutionary Guards have been actively and extensively promoting and supporting Raeesi. Ayatollah Khamenei’s hardliner supporters have all put their support behind him, and the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) has done its best to sell Raeesi to the public. This strongly resembles support for Ahmadinejad in 2005.
But how is it different?
1. A Sitting President: In 2005, no sitting president was running for reelection. As the incumbent, President Rouhani has a free hand to use his position to promote himself and take effective advantage of government patronage. Plus, his entire cabinet, from Jahangiri to Foreign Minister Zarif, have been actively helping his campaign.
2. Two-Man Race: Considering that Jahangiri is certain to drop out of the race and Mostafa Mir-Salim is not expected to receive many votes, on the day of the election, the choice is really only between Rouhani and Raeesi. To force the election into a second round, as happened in 2005, Raeesi must secure 70 percent of the votes from the undecided and undeclared section of the electorate. Considering that there are less than two days left before the election, this outcome is unlikely.
3. Hardliner Hatred for Rouhani: Iran’s conservative principlists loathe Rouhani, and a significant section of the general public despise him too. However, Rouhani is not as hated as Rafsanjani was back in 2005. According to the political analyst Sadegh Zibakalam, in 2005 even a piece of dried stick would have won against Rafsanjani. Rouhani has clear achievements, including the nuclear agreement, and enjoys the full support of reformists — prominent figures like former president Mohammad Khatami back his reelection— whereas in 2005, reformists divided their support between three candidates. In 2017, an important section of leftists actively support Rouhani.
4. Everything Online: Compared with 2005, the Iran of 2017 is highly saturated with the internet and social media networks, all of which make it difficult to repeat what happened in 2005 or replicate the Ahmadinejad effect. This has given ordinary but responsible citizens an unprecedented power to both attack and defend ideas and facts, and this can provide Rouhani with a strong protective shield.
5. Less Interference from the Supreme Leader: Ayatollah Khamenei’s public interference in the election is less tangible than it was in 2005. And compared to Khatami’s government, the Rouhani administration has more power to prevent voting irregularities.
6. Raeesi Lacks Charisma, and his Reputation is Well Known: Ahmadinejad had a strong public appeal, and skillfully appealed to parts of the electorate. Raeesi’s political personae, creativity and skill are much weaker. His record, especially on human rights, is better known than Ahmadinejad’s was. This makes it more difficult for him to bring the undecided voter to his corner.
It’s not impossible that 2017 will be a repeat of 2005. Iran could end up with another Ahmadinejad, a man close to the most conservative and extreme sections of Iran’s political landscape, and whose populist appeals do wonders to boost his political standing. But given the existing data and projections, it is very difficult to conceive such an outcome.