Who Will Challenge Rouhani in 2017 Elections?
(Members from Iran’s Jewish community vote in February 2016 parliamentary elections. Source: Mona Hoobehfekr/ISNA)
After the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei's implicit veto of a very likely Ahmadinejad campaign for presidency, the Pandora's Box of Principlism in Iran has opened once again.
Since Ahmadinejad left the stage, almost every potential candidate within the Principlist camp has strongly denied any plan to run for office in the next year's presidential race. The long list of withdrawers includes heavyweights such as Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani, his right hand and former parliamentary lobbyist Mohammad-Reza Bahonar, IRGC commander and two-time candidate Mohsen Rezaei, and Quds Force Brigadier General Qassem Soleimani. Even attempts to encourage forces within the Rouhani cabinet to compete against the sitting president’s reelection have been futile. Healthcare Minister Hassan Ghazizadeh Hashemi and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif have both denied rumors they are planning to launch a campaign. Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization and Ali Akbar Velayati, the Supreme Leader’s top advisor in foreign policy, also among such targets, seem unlikely rivals for Rouhani, too. A lesser-known figure like ex-director of the IRIB Ezatollah Zarghami has shrugged the question off, for the nonce.
The void of a potential candidate among the Principlists has sparked a myriad of speculations in Iranian media. Ali Saremian of the Reformist outlet Entekhab has offered an accurate picture of the inner workings of the Iranian Right and of how Ahmadinejad has divided it into three groups. The first faction, an alliance of the Combatant Clergy Association, the Islamic Coalition Party and the bazaar, which now works under the umbrella front of the Followers of Imam and the Leader, are dealmakers and are ready to work with every administration. The second group is that of the Paydari Front, first founded by Ahmadinejad’s “billionaire minister” Sadegh Mahsouli. The Tehran division of the faction follows Ahmadinejad while Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi leads the Qom division. The third faction is made up of those Ahmadinejad ministers whose identity is pegged to that of Ahmadinejad.
Saremian concludes that similar demands will eventually unite the Principlists. The floor under their demands is to keep someone [within their camp] and the ceiling of their demands is someone’s presidency, he argues. That someone is Mohammad-Bagher Qalibaf, Saremian quips. “Their ado should not be taken seriously. Even if candidates similar to the camp’s candidates in the 2013 race [enter the competition], they will finally withdraw in favor of Qalibaf”.
And that seems to be true. Even though the chances of Qalibaf’s campaign are already wasted to a great extent, the one and only campaign that still threatens to challenge Rouhani's reelection at the moment is his. Not surprisingly, there are quite suggestive signs, here and there, that at least a meaningful majority of the Principlists are behind him. Or maybe they cannot let yet another like-minded fellow go down.
However, both Qalibaf and the Principlists should review their answer to why a two-time loser with approximately six million voters should hope to undermine a reelection of Rouhani. The sage advice has already come from Mohammad-Reza Bahonar, the director-general of the Followers front: “Those who have failed once should not run”. This prescription also eliminates former negotiator and 2013 hopeful Saeed Jalili from the competition.
Bahonar has put forward three attributes of a possible Principlist candidate; efficiency, capability and popularity. “Popularity matters for us because of the public demands for the tackling of economic stagnation and unemployment. If a candidate is capable in economy, wise and well-behaved, he can be called a hero of economy,” he said.
Bahonar shows his understanding of the Supreme Leader’s advice to Ahmadinejad. “Elections are not wars but healthy competitions, rejuvenating for the public,” he told a presser, last week.
The Principlists have even considered backing President Rouhani, even though this means the hardliner Right will not follow suit. However, they may have no other options for the upcoming election.