Iran's Presidential Elections: A Surge of Reformists in Politics

Editor’s Note: This commentary is the first in a series on the anticipated course of the Iranian elections. Writing from Tehran, Middle East expert Djavad Salehi-Isfahani examines what’s at stake, the voters, and how the debate is addressing the needs of the Iranian people.

This Friday, over 30 million Iranian voters are expected to decide if Mr. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad should get four more years. Not since 1997, when the reform movement scored its first and most decisive victory against the conservative establishment, has an election mattered or generated as much excitement as this one. Televised presidential debates, a novelty in Iran, have been sharp and engaging—drawing millions of viewers and lasting until midnight. Young volunteers have been filling the streets wearing their favorite candidate’s colored ribbons and bringing traffic to a halt in busy intersections.

What are the Stakes? Who are the Voters?

The stakes for both reformers and conservatives have never been so high:

First, Iranian leaders are facing an extended hand from President Obama just as Iran’s increasing fear of the Taliban and growing support of Iraq’s Maliki government converge with those concerns of the United States. The elected winner will get to shape this critical round of diplomacy which will then determine the direction of Iran’s foreign policy in the future.

Second, Iran’s middle class,[1] twice as large in number as they were in 1997 and now accounting for about half of all voters, are asserting themselves for the first time. Their challenge is reflected most visibly in their criticism of the “charity economy” that opposition candidates accuse Mr. Ahmadinejad of having created.

Third, the children of the 1979 revolution—today’s youth—have come of age in 2009 and are challenging the revolution’s architects, who are in near retirement. Voters under 30 account for 40 percent of the voting age population, the same proportions as in 1997 but more sophisticated and more frustrated. They are more sophisticated because they are better educated, and by overcoming poor internet infrastructure and censorship, they have succeeded in placing Iran fifth in the world in terms of the number of bloggers. They are more frustrated because, despite a growing economy and an oil boom, their unemployment rate is twice as high as it was in 1997. Unemployment rates for 20-24 year olds increased from 15 to 22 percent for men and from 23 to 44 percent for women.

First in Iranian Politics, a Real Debate?

The economy is expected to dominate the voter’s mind as they vote this Friday, but the campaigns have not zeroed in on serious economic issues, unless you count corruption as one. Mr. Ahmadinejad has managed to limit the debate to his favorite populist domain, focusing on his humble background and hammering his opponents with corruption charges ranging from ill-gotten wealth to ill-gotten diplomas. While the public is being served detailed gossip—ranging from Mr. Mehdi Karroubi’s large house, the Ph.D. of Mr. Hossein Moussavi’s wife (a well-known author and former president of Iran’s leading university for women), and Mr. Ahmadinejad’s $700 million gift intended for a foreign leader that the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei reportedly vetoed—critical economic issues receive only a general treatment.

Mr. Moussavi, the leading reformist candidate with a serious chance to unseat Mr. Ahmadinejad’s in the second round[2], has focused on social issues, such as stopping the intrusive morality police. His economic team is mainly drawn from the left of the spectrum and dabbles in such generalities as “subordinating individual interest to that of the public.” Mr. Karroubi, the only cleric in the race, has gathered a competent team of technocrats around him led by the popular former mayor of Tehran (Mr. Gholamhossein Karbaschi). Mr. Karroubi’s main message is “change” but he has offered few specifics except on cash handouts to individuals and provision of pension and social insurance for housewives.

All candidates hope to win over the youth vote, which could easily reach 50 percent of all votes cast if their disappointment with Mr. Ahmadinejad brings them out in force on June 12. For example, as a candidate, in 2005, Mr. Ahmadinejad had promised to focus on the “real” problems of youth, questioning the government’s obsession with youth attire. However, as president, he did the exact opposite by signing an order to increase street surveillance of youth by the morality police. Mr. Moussavi’s emphasis on social issues that mainly concern urban youth appears to have attracted a strong youth following. In a clever but subtle move, his campaign posters show him holding hands with his wife.

The Anticipated Run-Off

The goal of the reformists for Friday is to take the election to the second round, where they think they have a good chance of defeating Mr. Ahmadinejad. Odds are good that this will happen, but by no means will it be easy. First, Mr. Ahmadinejad is a formidable campaigner and enjoys the implicit support of the Supreme Leader as well as large sections of the lower classes. Second, in the last two years he has been busy redistributing income to the lower strata and evidence shows that this may have succeeded in creating greater support. Finally, no president of the Islamic Republic has served just one term throughout Iran’s history.

Still, the conservatives seem quite fearful of the second round and are expected to pull all stops to win in the first. The Iran Daily, which supports Mr. Ahmadinejad, sounded an optimistic note last week when it claimed that polls show Mr. Ahmadinejad has increased his share of votes from 51 to 63 percent. However, polls in Iran are highly inaccurate and often contradict each other.

No matter what happens on Friday, this election has scored a decisive victory for Iranian politics. Despite ad hominem attacks and populist distractions, politicians are being held accountable for their record. In his last debate, Mr. Ahmadinejad held up a dozen charts to show his government’s accomplishments on the economy. Mr. Moussavi’s critics have pointed to his record in the 1980s, when as prime minister he presided over the socialization of the Iranian economy, to which he has responded by saying that the times have changed and so has he. Mr. Karroubi’s performance as the speaker of the parliament has also come under scrutiny, when he killed a progressive press law, citing a decree from the Supreme Leader to stop debating it. Accountability is not going to constrain Mr. Ahmadinejad should he get reelected, for this would be his second and last term and there is no political party that would do the accounting for him. But newly elected presidents would have to govern with a view to accounting for their record later on, which is political progress.


[1] Middle class is defined on the basis of $10 per person per day expenditures in PPP dollars and at least a basic education for the household head.

[2] A candidate must gain at least 51 percent of the votes to be elected as winner. With such a tight race between the candidates, the elections on June 12 will likely lead to a second round.