Why the 2017 Iranian Election Matters

 The 2017 Iranian presidential election could be mainly summarized by the many images of Iranians lining up outside the polling stations and the overall enthusiasm and fervor sparked by the short yet dynamic campaign and re-election of the pragmatic Hassan Rouhani. Hassan Rouhani won a second term with fifty-seven percent of the votes, almost seven points higher than during his first election, in an unprecedented turnout of seventy percent.

Iran remains one of the few countries in the Middle East where the voting turnout is meaningful. The high turnout number is a signal that Iranians are still engaged in politics and choose to express it through voting. Iran arguably may have chosen a slower path to democracy, but Iranians are drawing their own idea of Iran, either through approval or contestation. The landmark JCPOA ‘nuclear deal’ (Joint Comprehensive Plan Of Action)—or BARJAM as it is known by Iranians—could have affected the possibility of a positive verdict for Hassan Rouhani, as it is widely accepted that the deal’s results fell below the expectations, despite its popularity. The victory of Hassan Rouhani demonstrates that Iranian politics is not just a choice between two candidates or one; as it is for most of the Middle East. Iran has a unique system that is difficult to compare. Iranians rejected populism on two occasions: during legislative elections in 2016, and the presidential election.

The two consecutive mandates of Mahmood Ahmadinejad marked the Iranian society. A fusion of color marked Hassan Rouhani’s campaign with purple flags representing Rouhani and green flags referencing the 2009 Green Movement. Chants praised the two leaders of the Green Movement, Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, during Rouhani’s campaign across the country. The reformist block backed the incumbent candidate, Rouhani, who also benefited from the endorsement of former president Khatami, still a popular political figure among Iranians. However, Iran has an imperfect system. The president’s decisions are often counter-balanced by the Ayatollah Khamenei, who raised his criticism regarding Rouhani’s economic results.

The country regained pre-sanctions oil exportation levels. Iran’s growth in 2016 reached seven percent, higher than the average in the region. Despite the oil sector growth, the unemployment rate remains high at 12.7 percent with three million unemployed. Lifted sanctions in the oil sector increased capital, but is not a labor-intense industry and did not create jobs. The business climate is still not strong enough to attract foreign investors and this is negatively affecting the youth population with unemployment at thirty percent. Recently, the US Senate has passed a sanction bill against Iran that could undermine the nuclear deal, and reverse recent gains. The senate promised to review the license of Boeing and Airbus for the selling of aircrafts to Iran.

The main preoccupation and focus of this year’s election was the economic prospects of Iran, despite neither of the candidates having a detailed and concrete economic program. During the election campaign, Rouhani’s main opponent, Ebrahim Raissi, undertook a ‘bread-and-butter’ campaign promising to increase the cash handout to the lower classes and create a considerable number of jobs. Raissi is a hardline cleric at the head of the powerful Astan Quds Razavi; the institution that manages the holy shrine of Imam Reza in the city of Mashad. Ebrahim Raissi also benefited from the support of Ayatollah Khamenei, as he used to be a former disciple of his. Raissi entered the presidential race with almost zero political experience. However, the majority of Raissi supporters did not vote as a means to sanction Rouhani’s policy and nuclear deal, but rather because of Raissi’s approach to ‘resistance economy’ appeals to the hardline base. Despite Rouhani’s mitigated economy balance, Iranian voters chose the path of resilience and national dialogue as also a way to send a signal to Iran’s top leaders to prioritize civic engagement.

During the 2017 electoral campaigns, political debate grew more important. Almost 20 million Iranians use social media platforms like Telegram for online debates to avoid state monitoring and indicates a socialization of politics. This year, candidates used Telegram and utilized paid advertising for channels willing to promote their program. Instagram, normally scrutinized by the state, has also been used by the candidates to reach out more broadly to the Iranian citizens. The high voter turnout remains important as it is used as a way to legitimize the Islamic Revolution and Republic. Yet, in paradox, high turnouts have often favored reformist candidates such as Khatami in 1997 and 2001, and Rajsanjani in 2005 or more recently, Rouhani in 2013. This year’s election is no exception. Hassan Rouhani’s victory in 2013 is perceived as being both a political and social retaliation to the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2009.

But Iran is at a crossroad. Quickly following his victory, Hassan Rouhani dedicated his win to the young generation, as a way to remove the image of a country ruled by a small revolving group of aging political elite. Iran is sketching a new and dynamic image of its society in contrast to the rest of the region. The question is now whether Iran will continue to minimize the ongoing aggressive rhetoric and escalation of the ‘axis of Iranophobia,’ led by the US. The visit of US President Trump to Riyadh showed that animosity toward Iran continues and the political alliances to isolate Iran remain strong. The so-called Riyadh Declaration calling for the isolation of Iran is reminiscent of an outdated political game that is not suitable to current security challenges. By fueling shortsighted enmity and sectarianism the Arab countries are refusing to address profound issues that could sooner or later undermine their own survival—and reignite the ashes of the Arab Spring.

Mariam Elatouabi is a Youth Delegate at the United Nations and chairwoman of ‘Josoor‘ an NGO in the MENA region advocating for dialogue and cooperation in the Middle East through youth empowerment. She tweets @MariamElat.

Image: Photo: Supporters of Iranian president Hassan Rouhani gather as they celebrate his victory in the presidential election in Tehran, Iran, May 20, 2017.