Iran Election Update: Candidates Jockeying for Position as They Leave the Gate

With a little over a week since the Guardian Council’s (GC) selection of the six candidates for president, the candidates are jockeying to quickly get out of the gate for the sprint race campaign that will culminate on May 19. A poll conducted in mid-April, before the GC decision, provides some indication of the widely varying starting positions of the candidates. It indicated that:

  • President Rouhani and Tehran Mayor Qalibaf are both well-known and viewed positively, by 62 and 67% of those interviewed respectively.
  • Ebrahim Raisi, reportedly Supreme Leader Khamenei’s preferred candidate, and First Vice-President Jahangiri both have low name recognition — less than half of the respondents indicated they knew who they were — and limited popularity.
  • Two of the presidential candidates — Mostafa Mirsalim and Mostafa Hashimetaba, were not included in the poll.

Predata’s signals suggest that, regardless of their starting positions, the conservative candidates have generated far greater digital momentum during the early days of the campaign. Raisi, Mirsalim, and Qalibaf have been the primary drivers of digital interest in the election campaign so far, as the chart above shows. On the other hand, the reformist candidates — Rouhani, Jahangiri, Hashimetaba — have all lagged.

The pattern for the individual campaigns of the presidential candidates mirrors Predata’s aggregate signals for the conservative and reformist coalitions (above). Digital momentum, which is a way of understanding fluctuations in online engagement between different candidates throughout a political campaign (see a fuller explanation here), does not necessarily align with voter preferences and should not be understood as a prediction or probability estimate of the ultimate outcome on May 19. But these patterns suggest that the conservative alternatives to Rouhani and their policy platforms are generating scrutiny online in a way that the incumbent himself is not.

The first week’s campaigning — including the first televised debate on April 28 — confirmed that the election debate will focus heavily on the economy. As anticipated, the conservative candidates aggressively attacked Rouhani’s track record on the economy and the gap between rich and poor. Predata’s monitoring of several Persian-language Wiki pages (see below) suggests that this line of attack may get traction, if correctly focused. For example, in the last month there has been increased attention to the pages on the economy of Iran and social class in Iran. On the other hand, the Supreme Leader’s call for implementation of the Resistance Economy, an appeal for building an internally focused economy, doesn’t seem to be a campaign winner.

In a dramatic development during the April 28 candidate debate, First Vice-President Jahangiri launched an attack against Qalibaf, a former IRGC officer — highlighting the candidate’s ties to an individual accused of having led Iranian pillaging of the Saudi embassy in early 2016. As indicated below, this allegation sparked a major spike in attention to the Persian-language Wiki page on this attack. Nonetheless, the limited overall Iranian interest in Iran-Saudi relations (as illustrated by the lack of recent activity in the Predata signal for this topic; see below) suggests this is unlikely to be a major campaign theme. In our view, Jahangiri’s purpose in raising this issue was to remind the reformist base of the significant threat that Iran’s own “deep state” poses to political reform.

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