Iran Goes to the Polls: What you Need to Know

May 19, 2017
Natasha Schmidt
7 min read
The main contenders: Rouhani and Raeesi
The main contenders: Rouhani and Raeesi
Iranians have shared information on Telegram and other online services
Iranians have shared information on Telegram and other online services
Raeeisi has gained in the polls
Raeeisi has gained in the polls
Rouhani enjoys a wide support base
Rouhani enjoys a wide support base

Who’s running?

The main contenders are the incumbent, President Hassan Rouhani, and conservative cleric Ebrahim Raeesi. Two other candidates, former Minister of Culture Mostafa Mirsalim and head of Iran’s National Olympic Committee, Mostafa Hashemitaba, are also running. 

Hassan Rouhani secured over 50 percent of the votes in 2013, and so avoided a run-off. His main achievement has been reaching the nuclear deal with the five permanent members of the UN Security Council — the US, Britain, France, Russia and China  — and Germany in 2015. At the time, he assured the Iranian people that the deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, would help restore Iran’s economy. Although the economy has improved, it has not been as immediate as people hoped, and certainly Iran’s poorest people have not experienced any trickle-down effect so far. 

During presidential debates and his campaign, Rouhani pledged that the economy would continue to be boosted, and said he would renew efforts to usher in a rights charter for citizens — a commitment he made to the electorate in 2013. He also spoke out against the powerful influence of the Revolutionary Guards in the country’s finances, the first president to raise such an issue during a debate. But overall, his message has been that if Iranians want continued improvements in the economy and greater personal freedoms, they better stick with him.

Ebrahim Raeesi has an established record in Iran — but not in an executive role, either in terms of government or business. His career has been primarily in Iran’s judiciary, and historically the judiciary does not always see eye to eye with the executive branch of government. Last year, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei appointed him to oversee the Astan Quds Razavi foundation, Iran’s wealthiest endowment. Some, including journalist and politician Mohammad Sadegh Javadi-Hesar, say he’s done a good job since his appointment, and really listened to the poor and the less privileged, especially in Mashhad, Iran’s second-biggest city, but also in Iran’s provinces. 

But he also has a dark past, and sat on Ayatollah Khomeini’s so-called death panel of 1988, a small group of men tasked with carrying out the supreme leader’s orders to execute thousands of political prisoners. Despite calls for the regime to discuss the crime in a transparent fashion — from the victims’ families but also from Ahmad Montazeri, the son of the late ayatollah who was once Khomeini’s closest ally and confidant — Raeesi and others have remained silent on what is regarded as one of Iran’s worst crimes. 

During his campaign, Raeesi has pointed to his achievements at the prestigious endowment in Mashhad, and held up his work with Iran’s disenfranchised people as one of the main reasons people should vote for him. 


Who’s voting? 

Over 56 million people are eligible to vote. On May 19, they arrived at more than 63,000 polling places around the country. 

The supreme leader was said to have cast the first vote as the polls opened. An hour after the polls opened, President Rouhani was seen at the ballot box. 

Citizen journalists in Iran have sent IranWire photographs of smiling voters of all ages, all lining up to cast their vote. Turnout has been high. 

In the past, analysts have pointed to the power of the youth vote, and analysts have pointed out that Iran had one of the largest populations in the world of people under 30. But economist Djavad Salehi-Isfahani says that one Iranian population census has found that Iran’s youth population is shrinking relative to the population. Back in 2009, when many of them voted for reform and a move toward more openness and democracy, many supported the Green Movement. Today, many people want different things — and those youth, and the people who grew up during the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988), want different things, and jobs are the top of their list. So it remains to be seen how they will grade Rouhani, and whether Raeeisi’s appeal to the less advantaged will bear fruit. 

Iranians around the world are also voting, with ballot boxes accessible in countries around the globe — including near the Cannes Film Festival. Iranians also voted in several cities in the US, Canada, Germany, Sweden, the Ivory Coast, and New Zealand. 


When will the winner be announced? 

A candidate will have to secure over 50 percent of the vote to win outright, and originally it was thought that the results could be announced later tonight — though an early morning announcement is now most likely. Polls were originally expected to close at 6pm, but the voting period was extended and polls will now close at 10pm. In Tehran, they will stay open until 11. 

If Raeesi or Rouhani do not secure 50 percent of the vote, the election will go to a second round. 


What impact could today’s election have on the rest of the world? 

Although it’s well known that the supreme leader and the influential bodies the Assembly of Experts and the Guardian Council really wield the power in Iran, what happens today does matter. Iran’s president can informally appeal to the leader to consider his views, policies and experience, and the relationship between the president and the supreme leader is usually a balancing act. Certainly during the Rouhani presidency, the supreme leader has tended to quietly support Rouhani and his cabinet in their efforts at international diplomacy, but then speaks up when he identifies anything he can define as a risk to the values of the Islamic Republic — including tolerating too many social freedoms, backing down too much on Iran’s perceived sovereignty, and any move away from viewing the United States as essentially an enemy.

So what happens on May 19 could affect a lot: the nuclear deal and its future and the relationship with the Untied States, but also on what happens in the Middle East, especially in Syria and Yemen — after all, Iran bankrolls forces that support Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and the Houthi rebels in Yemen. And how Iran treats its citizens and their rights — from gender equality to freedom of expression and online freedoms to workers’ rights — says something to the world too. It can be a model, or a point of resistance and a call for widespread reform, for governments, politicians, activists and advocacy initiatives around the globe. 


Telegram could change Iran (or could it?)

It’s well known that young Iranians are into sharing information, opinion and news online — despite, and even spurred on by, the heavy internet censorship in place. For this election, more than ever, Iranians have promoted and shared information about candidates and key issues online — particularly on Instagram and Telegram

Telegram’s role really took off in 2015, and people put it to good use during the February 2016 parliamentary elections and elections for the Assembly of Experts.

Telegram has been so important in the 2017 presidential election that a healthy market buying and selling Telegram channels has emerged.

One very popular Telegram channel is VahidOnline, which has close to 137,000 subscribers. It reports the news, and also republishes messages from Twitter, which is officially blocked in Iran, even though the supreme leader, the president and all key officials have profiles on Twitter.

Instagram is so popular that, according to the New York Times, candidates used automated bot accounts to spread their campaign messages. And Raeesi has apparently been as active as Rouhani, posting photographs of himself with supporters and talking about gender equality — not something many would associate with a conservative cleric. 


Who will win? 

President Rouhani is expected to win, but Iran’s elections are always unpredictable. He’s performed well throughout the polls, well above Raeesi and Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf before he pulled out. But according to a survey by iPOS, Raeesi’s poll numbers rose from 12 percent on May 6 to 21 percent on May 15. After Bagher Ghalibaf dropped out of the race, Raeesi has polled somewhere around 30 percent. He could push Rouhani to a second round, something that has never happened in an election that includes a sitting president. But most analysts say Raeesi is unlikely to win, given the data and projections available.







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