In the final days leading up to the election, one of the issues that has captivated the Iranian media has been the potential for coalition building to shake up the electoral landscape. There have been two notable withdrawals from the race in the final days, first with Principlist former Majlis speaker Gholam Ali Haddad Adel dropping out – albeit leaving five other affiliates of the conservative Principlist front still in the race – and then with Mohammad Reza Aref leaving in favor of former nuclear negotiator Hassan Rouhani, in an attempt to build a strong coalition on the reformist-moderate end of the spectrum.
As Haddad Adel’s withdrawal did not clear up the electoral picture for the Principlists a great deal, more attention and commentary was aimed at the reformists’ maneuvering. The conservative press was skeptical of the move to unite around Rouhani. A writer in Javan questioned why the reformists forced out Aref, whose positions and experience mesh far more with raditional reformist polices than the “rightist” Rouhani, and suggested that Aref was punished for denouncing the “sedition” of the street protests in 2009, showing that the reformists are still controlled by radicals. Meanwhile, Hossein Shariatmadari, the hardline thinker and Kayhan editor, wrote that evidence showed a two-pronged effort by the reformists to unite their votes while trying to sow disunity among the Principlists, but that there was “no hope for victory” for them.
Meanwhile, the reformist press was more hopeful. Sadegh Zibakalam in the reformist Arman wrote that the unification behind Rouhani looked likely to catapult the reformists into a runoff, but that the Principlists would have to find a way to mend the internal differences that had formed in the absence of strong reformist opposition. He wrote that “for years, the Principlists have carried this as a dormant illness that only the fear of a rival has been cause for them to deal with on a short term basis for political reasons.” Meanwhile, Mohammad Javad Hojjati-Kermani wrote in the reformist Shargh that, as long as there was full support from Aref when he stood down, as well as clear public organizational support from former presidents Mohammad Khatami and Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the reformists could truly coalesce and achieve victory, perhaps without needing a runoff.
Haddad Adel’s withdrawal, it should be noted, was praised as noble in the conservative press. A Khorasan editorial argued that not only was it good for the Principlist front, but that it was another example of the unselfish behavior of the “most ethical” of all the candidates, who should be seen as an example for all.
Reformist political commentator and professor Sadegh Zibakalam muses about the effect that the unification of reformist and moderate forces around the candidacy of Hassan Rouhani will have on the rival Principlists. He writes that the Principlists’ lack of strong opposition has led them to infighting that they will have to address: “The main attribute within the Principlist front over the past four years has been discord, which has been increasing day by day ever since the sidelining of reformist groups.” However, he writes that a more essential reason for the internal discord of the Principlists has been the lack of a true unifying political structure within its organization. He says that “for years, the Principlists have carried this as a dormant illness that only the fear of a rival has been cause for them to deal with on a short term basis for political reasons.” He writes, however, that even if the Principlists do not have time to rally around a chosen candidate for Friday’s election, they will likely be forced into supporting a Principlist who emerges in the event of a run-off election, and the reformists need to be ready to deal with the unified might of the conservatives at that point.
Kayhan editor and influential conservative figure Hossein Shariatmadari writes that the successful coalition-building among the reformists behind Rouhani was to be expected, as there was “only one option left for them,” and that was to throw all their votes behind a single candidate to deal with their numerical disadvantage vis-à-vis the supporters of the Principlist front as a whole. However, he writes that this move will inevitably prompt an even more successful and effective move by the Principlists to coalesce behind a single candidate. Referring to his own editorial of two days prior, Shariatmadari writes that there has been a plan both to “unify the votes of the front of so-called reforms” and to “continue to sow disunity among the votes of the Principlists,” and says that his prediction that the plan would continue with the organized removal of Aref from the race has been proven correct. He writes that the candidate engineering on the part of the reformists has been shown to be an actual and organized plan – one which Aref himself was forced to go along with – but that the reformists themselves know that they do not have enough votes to compete, and that in the end, despite their claims that they entered the race to win, “they have no hope for victory.”
Hamidreza Shokuhi writes in the reformist-leaning Mardom Salari that those who were planning to boycott the election due to a feeling that the winner was pre-selected through an orchestrated process will have to revisit their decision due to the building of a reformist coalition. He argues that there are now conditions that seem to favor participation by reformists, notably the inability of the Principlists to form a consensus on a candidate. Writing on the eve of the announcement of Aref’s withdrawal, he argues, “In this election, we do not have a bipolar political scene. Even if the reformists reach consensus, the Principlists will still enter the election with multiple candidates as some of them consider their position to be above that of the people and are unwilling to step aside in favor of others. Thus not only will the segment of society that supports the Principlists see its votes split, but also the organized votes of the Principlists will not be able to benefit a single candidate. This because at least four main Principlist candidates can count on support from organized entities of the Principlist movement, and thus will split the vote whatever happens.” He also reminds reformists that many had little hope of being allowed to win in 1997 with Khatami, and kept their support for him quiet, but were pleasantly surprised with what could happen when they rallied around a candidate: “At that time everyone envisioned that the name of Nateq-Nouri would emerge victorious. But when all the quiet votes arrived, Khatami became president.”
Kourosh Shojaei of the conservative daily Khorasan writes that Gholam Ali Haddad Adel’s decision to pull away from the election was not only a strategic necessity due to the polling data showing him trailing among voters, but was a testament to the character of a man known for temperance and nonpartisanship. In addition to helping the Principlist front, he writes, Haddad Adel deserves praise both for his selflessness and the way he conducted his campaign, and can serve as a model to the other candidates, who if elected, must rule “in the best interests of the constitution, the national interest, national unity, the people’s will, and the honor, independence, and security of our dear Iran…” As such, he writes, Haddad Adel was the “most ethical” of all the candidates.
In the reformist Shargh, Hojjati-Kermani writes just on the eve of Aref’s withdrawal from the race that it is critical that the two reformist-leaning candidates reach an alliance – and that it is done in a fully engaged manner in which whoever drops out sincerely and wholeheartedly supports the other. Specifically, he argues that such an alliance will only work if fully backed – as it has apparently been so far – by the two most influential politicians with reformist ties, former presidents Mohammad Khatami and Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. This would help prevent infighting and mistrust among the different branches of reformists, he writes, as the senior statesmen of the movement vouching for a unity candidate could prevent certain reformist voters from making cynical assessments like “Rouhani was never a reformist before but now wants to ride the reformist wave,” or “Aref is a hardcore reformist and those voters who consider themselves neither reformists nor Principlists…will not want to put all their eggs in the reformist basket.” He writes that if the union is well-structured, all reformists and moderates can achieve their common goal of victory over the Principlist candidates, perhaps even in the first round of elections.
[T]here is a wider consensus about the undesirability of Iran’s missile activities than there is about how to respond.