MIDEAST >Election campaign kicks off in Iran

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Campaigning began on April 21 for Iran’s presidential election with incumbent Hassan Rouhani facing a tough battle against hardliners, though not from former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who was barred from standing.

Ahmadinejad’s disqualification by the conservative-run Guardian Council was no surprise -- he had been advised not to run by supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei who said it would “polarize” the nation. His populist economics and defiant attitude to the establishment had alienated even Ahmadinejad’s hardline backers during his 2005-2013 tenure.

“Once the supreme leader had told him not to stand, it became impossible for him to be cleared by the Guardian Council,” said Clement Therme, research fellow for Iran at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

“By his second term, [Ahmadinejad] was even challenging the clerics. He was not useful anymore for the system.”

The mood in Tehran has been subdued -- many are disillusioned with Rouhani’s failure to kick-start the economy despite broad support for his efforts to rebuild ties with the West, notably through a nuclear deal with world powers that eased sanctions.

Campaigning, which the Guardian Council announced could begin immediately, had not been supposed to start for another week, so there was little activity on April 21. But experts say the authorities are keen to excite interest in the vote. “They need that for legitimacy -- the turnout is even more important than the result,” said Therme.

Iran’s elections are tightly controlled, with the Guardian Council allowing just six people -- and no women -- to stand for the May 19 vote out of 1,636 hopefuls that registered last week. If no candidate wins more than 50 percent, a run-off between the top two is held a week later.

Rouhani, a politically moderate cleric, squeaked to victory last time with 51 percent in the first round, helped by a divided conservative camp.

The build-up to the vote has injected more interest than many predicted just a couple of months ago, when Rouhani was seen as a shoo-in for a second term if only because the conservative opposition seemed unable to offer a strong candidate.

Since then, the 56-year-old former judge and cleric Ebrahim Raisi has emerged as a front-runner for the conservatives.  Little-known on the political scene, Raisi runs a powerful religious foundation and business empire in the holy city of Mashhad and is seen as a close ally of -- and possible successor to -- supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

But despite emphasizing his care for the poor, many say Raisi’s hardline judicial background and entourage will turn off voters.

“He seems like a good and calm person himself, but the people around him are scary,” said a tour operator in Yazd, echoing a widely heard sentiment.

Some think he may drop out at the last minute in favor of Tehran mayor Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, who came second to Rouhani in 2013.

Ghalibaf -- a war veteran, former Revolutionary Guards commander and police chief -- has support from powerful backroom hardliners and presents himself as a pragmatic problem-solver.

“Economic problems cannot be solved from behind a desk,” he said on April 21 .

April/21/2017

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