Nativists versus Globalists: what type of ‘populism’ will Iran embrace?

Unfree. Unfair. Unpredictable. Such is the nature of today’s Presidential ‘election’ in Iran.

Despite Iran’s system of ‘managed democracy’ where ultimate power resides with the Supreme Leader and his Guardian Council, the outcome of today’s vote remains a critical index of domestic political trends. Secondly, while the political authority of the President is limited, his election procedure and decision-making power affects the overall legitimacy of the Islamic Republic. This has implications for its long-term future, especially at this crucial geopolitical juncture. The turnout rate is thus important. Writing on his Telegram messenger account, Ali Khamenei declared on May 17, “American, European officials and those of the Zionist regime are watching our elections to see the level of participation.”

Seeking re-election, the incumbent ‘moderate’ President Hassan Rouhani faces a significant challenge from the ultra-conservative custodian of the Imam Reza Shrine, Ebrahim Raisi, who is widely tipped as a possible successor to Ali Khamenei. Learning from the fractures of the 2013 race, the conservative camp was emboldened this week as Mohammed Bagher Ghalibaf, the mayor of Tehran, withdrew and endorsed Raisi. While data from the Iranian Students Polling Agency positions Rouhani at 42% and Raisi at 27%, information remains unreliable and the regime’s willingness to rig the election should not be underestimated.

The campaign has focussed mainly on the enduring stagnation of the economy following the nuclear agreement with the P5+1. While the IMF has predicted Iran’s economy will grow this year at a rate of 6.6%, oil-driven growth is no substitute for much-needed foreign investment, which is largely deterred by America’s unilateral imposition of sanctions on Tehran’s illegal testing of ballistic missile technology. Indeed, Raisi has centred his candidacy on this issue, lambasting the perceived failure of Rouhani’s engagements with Western powers to deliver the promised fruit of prosperity.

Western political discourse is embroiled with discussion of nationalist populism. Frames of reference have included ‘open’ versus ‘closed’ societies and ‘globalists’ versus ‘nativists’. The Iranian election has reproduced similar narratives with Raisi criticising Rouhani’s programme of gradualist reform and internationalist foreign policy from the standpoint of inward-looking conservative populism. In contrast, Rouhani has tried to sail the political winds of the Green Revolution by cultivating an outward-looking ‘liberal’ populism.

Raisi has emphasised inequality and corruption, presenting Rouhani as a compromised insider. Critics have justifiably attacked his hypocrisy given his extended background in the judiciary and his involvement in the infamous 1988 ‘Death Commission’ which executed 30,000 regime opponents. In a populist gesture to former President Ahmedinejad’s working class base, Raisi has called for the tripling of cash handouts. Criticising Rouhani’s ‘globalist’ economic approach, moreover, Raisi has attacked the concessions of the JCPOA, insisting economic self-reliance, infused with ‘revolutionary spirit’, is the best way forward. This echoes the words of Khamenei’s Nowruz message which was titled, “Resistance Economy: Production and Employment.” This ‘protectionism’ also has a cultural component. For example, both Raisi and Khamenei have questioned the legitimacy of signing a UNESCO agreement on the equal rights of men and women to access education by 2030, claiming this was an affront to the regime’s Islamic integrity. That said, Raisi has noticeably downplayed social issues fearing the alienation of younger voters.

Despite his establishment credentials, Rouhani’s discourse has been inflected by anti-system appeals. Recognising his 2013 election was a concession to Iran’s urban middle class, Rouhani knows that in order to win he has to speak like the leader of the 2009 Green Movement. Indeed, its leader Mir Hussein Mousavi yesterday endorsed him, joining a coalition of ‘moderates’ (including former President Mohammad Khatami) in support of his quest for a second term. Speaking at the Tehran International Book Fair in early May, Rouhani declared “critics should not be detained, critics should not be sent to jail.” Thus, as Rouhani seeks to win over younger, urban and more liberal voters, Raisi tries to mobilise their rural, poorer, religiously conservative counterparts. Nevertheless, Rouhani’s cynical appropriation of the language of political freedom rings hollow as his regime has overseen thousands of executions according to the United Nations. His signature of a Citizens Rights Charter in December 2016, as promised in his 2013 campaign, should be seen in a similar light. To add insult to injury, Iran’s Justice Minister, Mostafa Pourmohammadi, was also a member of the ‘Death Commission’. Critics have not remained silent with activists chanting “Political prisoners must be freed” at Rouhani’s rally in Isfahan on May 14.

The shallow symbolism of Rouhani’s appeals has been sufficient to enrage top judicial and Revolutionary Guard Corps officials, who openly call upon Iranians to support Raisi. Indeed, Rouhani has urged the Revolutionary Guards and Basij militia to avoid electoral interference. The three-way tussle between the revolutionary state infrastructure, the Presidency and the Iranian public further highlights the significance of the election outcome as a possible source of friction or political cement for the ruling elite.

As Mehdi Khalaji from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy notes, however, this Presidential race has taken place in a context of ‘vanishing Islam’. The focus on material issues at the expense of Islamic ideology is very significant because the regime has historically used the election process as a means of re-socialising the public in the norms of the state. As the revolutionary ideology loses its ‘seductive appeal’, the structural incapacity of the government to reform the endemically corrupt economy is likely to gain even greater salience. The immense cost of Tehran’s brutal support for Bashar al-Assad in Syria has also worsened the regime’s financial health. Furthermore, as arch-rival Saudi Arabia solidifies alliances with the ‘Great Satan’ (America) and the ‘Little Satan’ (Israel), the increasingly tense geopolitical climate will exacerbate extant pressures.

The ‘choice’ Iranians make today may well be remembered as a turning point in the history of the regime.