On 19 May Iranian voters go to the polls for the 12th presidential election since the founding of the Islamic Republic in 1979.

Contrary to the United States, where the presidential election process begins approximately one year before the election, the official election season is rather short in Iran: all is done in approximately six weeks. But political jockeying for the elections, in the form of mudslinging, begins much earlier.

This year, candidates had five days (from 11 to 15 April) to register their candidacy with Iran’s Interior Ministry, which supervises elections and reports on the results. According to the figures published in the Iranian media, 1,636 people registered to run: 1,499 men and 137 women. The vast majority had no experience in public office, so they were eliminated at the next stage of the process by the Guardian Council – a 12-member judicial body that has the power to veto legislation and which vets election candidates, often on vague and arbitrary grounds.

From this comes the criticism that Iran does not hold free and fair elections, and that the country’s leaders are running a mocked-up democracy. If only that were entirely true. Public opinion is actually rather important to those at the apex of the system precisely because it grants them a measure of legitimacy.

The vetting by the Guardian Council is essentially a process of managed competition, with the traditional clerical establishment having a preferred candidate. But that candidate does not always win. Once the vetting process is completed, the public is left with a handful of candidates to choose from. The campaigning period with live televised debates lasts three weeks.

“This year the election is essentially a referendum on the record of the sitting centrist President, Hassan Rouhani”

Since the disputed re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2009, the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, has consistently called for a high voter turnout, as this is seen as a vote of confidence in the governing system. With 50 million registered voters, voter turnout tends to range from 60% to 75%.

In last year’s legislative elections, voter turnout was higher than anticipated, indicating that Iranians willingly participate in the electoral process. Not voting is one of the few ways voters can actually express their discontent with the ruling elite, but boycotts have proven to be an ineffective strategy for Iran’s reformists.

So this year the election is essentially a referendum on the record of the sitting centrist President, Hassan Rouhani, who is entitled by law to run for a second term. Until now, every president has been a two-term president, as this allows for a certain amount of stability in the system. So there is every reason for Rouhani to believe that he will govern again.

To obtain a second term, Rouhani must essentially defend his record, which is under fierce attack from his opponents. His primary problem is the promise of economic gain from the 2015 nuclear deal with world powers. Unfortunately, those expectations have not been met. This has provided the country’s hardliners with means to attack Rouhani and leverage their own position. In addition, Rouhani promised political and social reforms, but instead he invested political capital in the nuclear deal. As a consequence, he has not delivered results on key issues affecting voters – a fact that could cause citizens to cast their vote elsewhere or stay at home on election day.

Surprisingly, a contender to Rouhani is his Vice-President, Eshagh Jahangiri, a pro-reform figure. Jahangiri was a potential candidate in the 2013 presidential election but withdrew in favour of former president Ayatollah Hashemi-Rafsanjani.  Originally, his candidacy seemed like a back-up plan in case Rouhani was disqualified, and so Jahangiri is now widely anticipated to withdraw his candidacy despite emerging as a front-runner following the first two televised election debates. Such speculation was further fuelled when former president Mohammed Khatami called on his followers to vote for Rouhani.

“As Rouhani’s record is not unblemished, it will not be an easy win for him”

The hardline camp has thus far failed to unite around a single candidate, which could possibly lead to a split conservative vote – a challenge they failed to overcome in 2013. The first contender among the conservatives is the Mayor of Tehran, Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, who has in recent months come under fire for a number of incidents including a building collapse in Tehran that led to the deaths of 20 firefighters, and mismanagement and corruption in Tehran city council. That effectively damages his reputation among urban Iranians. Ghalibaf was the runner-up to Rouhani in 2013, and with a populist campaign, it seems unlikely that he would beat him this time either.

A second contender among the conservatives is cleric Ebrahim Raisi, the current custodian and chairman of the Astan Quds Razavi, a religious foundation that manages several of Iran’s holiest sites. Although Raisi is not viewed as a popular figure and is accused by the opposition of authorising a crackdown against them in the 1980s, he is rumoured to enjoy the support of the Supreme Leader and the traditional clerical establishment. Confronting Rouhani’s economic performance head-on, his campaign has focused on improving the economic situation by tackling unemployment and by means of the ‘resistance economy’.

As Rouhani’s record is not unblemished, it will not be an easy win for him. The outcome will depend on whether voters turn up or not. However, in case a conservative wins, an unlikely scenario, a different attitude may emerge towards the West in Tehran.

IMAGE CREDIT: CC/Flickr – Asia Society