Iranian voters want economic justice – but the candidates don’t measure up

Hassan Rouhani’s supporters have high hopes for a second term. EPA/Abedin Taherkenareh

The campaign for the 2017 election in Iran, which takes place on May 19, has now moved into its final phase. The incumbent president, Hassan Rouhani, faces an assortment of competitors. These include one of his vice-presidents, Eshaq Jahangiri, the mayor of Tehran, Mohammed Baqer Qalibaf, and Ebrahim Raisi, head of Astan Qods Razavi, the country’s richest foundation. Raisi is considered a potential successor to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, and was thought of as Rouhani’s main challenger – until his somewhat lacklustre performance in the campaign’s live televised presidential debates in April.

Political pundits are often quick to dismiss the Islamic Republic’s electoral system as scripted and predictable, with the final decision in the hands of the supreme leader. Yet every presidential election since 1997 has defied such expectations. The assumption that the supreme leader “anoints” or implicitly makes his preference clear does not always hold. Candidates with this supposed blessing have lost more than once.

In 1997, the establishment candidate and preference of the supreme leader was Ali Akbar Nateq Nouri, who lost to Mohammed Khatami. In 2005, he was probably in favour of Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf or Ali Larijani, but instead the voters went for a largely unknown conservative, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. And in 2013, Hassan Rouhani defeated the candidate ideologically closest to Khamenei, Saeed Jalili.

Ahmadinejad mounted a brief bid to enter this year’s contest, but was ultimately disqualified by the Guardian Council. The rejection was not a surprise. Besides his dismal record on foreign and economic policies, he proved to be a deeply divisive president and managed to alienate most fellow conservatives.

But as a master populist, he attracted many voters driven less by ideology than by a craving for a bigger share of the state’s resources – and a deep antipathy towards the elite that has been running the country for nearly four decades.

Iranian election campaigns are short and intense, and the small pool of candidates need to work hard to differentiate and distinguish themselves. Their best chances to do that are in the three live TV debates.

In the first of these, the top contenders Rouhani and Raisi were somewhat hesitant and Jahangiri and Qalibaf more forceful. But by the third debate the personal attacks and allegations of corruption, fraud, and abuse of institutional resources were abundant between all four of them. Rouhani in particular had choice words for his conservative competitors and their backers within the political and military elite.

While the whole spectacle was perhaps a bit unseemly by Iranian standards, this level of public animosity between some of the most influential politicians of the country was also revealing. It showed that everyone is well aware of the scale of corruption in Iran. By publicly questioning each other’s records, they implicitly admitted that the problem is structural, deeply enmeshed in the institutions of the state that they control – and that their track record on finding a solution has not been impressive.

Raisi in the running. EPA/ABEDIN TAHERKENAREH

While the economy was the main topic of the debates, other issues, such as the 2015 nuclear agreement, were discussed. This agreement was the most important foreign policy issue of the previous administration (and their greatest achievement). In the debates the government came under fire for giving away too much in the negotiations or not realising the potential of the sanctions relief that is part of the result.

Yet more importantly all the candidates, regardless of ideological position, acknowledged that the agreement is now “the law of the land” and a deal that will last. The internal Iranian political consensus that helped produce the agreement holds – unlike the situation in the United States.

Another issue at the debates was the subject of citizens’ rights. These are part of the Iranian constitution, but are often ignored or violated by various state institutions. There are disagreements on how much power the state would have to relinquish in order for citizens and their voluntary organisations (civil society) to be able to exercise their rights. In short, the very institutions and political forces in charge are the ones who need to change in order for theoretical rights to become practice.

Back to basics

Each of the three separately themed debates eventually returned to the issues of the economy, inequality and corruption. Rouhani won the 2013 election mainly by promising to solve the nuclear deadlock precisely so the sanctions could be lifted. But though the historic nuclear deal was ultimately sealed in 2015, the subsequent economic recovery has been slower than expected and the problems of the average Iranian have not eased. This feeds into a decade-long frustration at the state’s inability or unwillingness to tackle inequality seriously. Unfortunately the remedies suggested by the candidates of this year’s presidential election are either superficial or unimaginative.

Rouhani rally. EPA/ABEDIN TAHERKENAREH

Both Qalibaf and Raisi have tried to borrow from Ahmadinejad’s economic populism. Qalibaf repeatedly contrasted the country’s wealthy elites, who he branded “the 4%”, against the disenfranchised 96%. But while he was glad to demonise the top tier, he failed to identify its members – primarily because he is part of this very elite.

Raisi, on the other hand, recycled the idea of increasing subsidies to alleviate poverty, as was done for food and fuel during the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s. But that programme became a millstone around Iran’s neck for decades to come. Subsidies were kept in place after the war to avoid social unrest, and over the years became so bloated that they threatened to consume the whole state budget. Ahmadinejad’s administration tried to implement a programme of reforms to restrict the subsidies and the number of recipients, but its approach was a half measure and not the required success.

Regardless of their place on the political spectrum, all the candidates subscribe to a kind of liberal, trickle down market economics, starting from the premise that economic growth will (eventually) benefit all Iranians.

While that’s true as far as it goes – growth will help tackle unemployment and poverty – none of the candidates seem able to articulate a programme to remedy the structure and perpetuation of social inequality. Yet again, Iran seems stuck with a political elite that cannot imagine what an equitable society would look like – much less how to make it a reality.