Presidential elections are today occurring in Iran to elect the successor of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The new President will take office for the next four years. The turnout could be partly conditioned by the negative image Iranians hold about the 2009 regime's crackdown. Four years ago the outcome from the ballot box was staunchly contested by large segments of the Iranian civil society who voted for the then two reformist candidates, Mir Hossein Mussavi and Mehdi Karrubi, who are currently under house arrest since February 2011. The symbol of the repression was the killing of the 26-year-old Neda Agha-Soltan, the sadly famous Gaze of the Gazelle captured in a video that was suddenly broadcast all over the world.
As usual, Iranians have a limited freedom of choice: only eight candidates out of 686 have passed the close examination of the Guardian Council, a religious institution that is charged with the task of selecting among candidates who satisfy the eligibility criteria. Indeed, they remain de facto six, after the resignation of the Reformist candidate Mohammed Reza Aref and the Conservative Gholam Reza Haddad Adel as well.
The withdrawal of the two came early this week. Reza Aref decided to resign after receiving a message by former President Mohammad Khatami, who is still the head of the Reformist faction as well as the central figure of the Green Movement who grew up after the disputed outcome of the 2009 elections. This is seen as a wise move, given the fact that those Iranians who support the Reformist camp can now focus just on one candidate, ruling out the risk of scattering the vote among multiple names. On the contrary, the Conservatives could face the trouble of discarding each other.
These elections have been affected by almost two excellent disqualifications. Former President Ali Akbar Rafsanjiani, who had been indicated as the frontrunner from the Reformist camp, was kept out from the competition because of his old age (79), but there are presumably other reasons related to the power struggle at the top of the Iranian ruling élite. Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, Ahmadinejad's brother-in-law and his government's chief of staff, was rejected due to his defying positions about the nature of the Islamic Republic as well as because of his emphasis on the pre-Islamic past of Iran and his ideas about the return of Mahdi which threw on him the blame of being the inspirer of a deviant sect.
So, after Khatami's endorsement of cleric Hassan Rowani, a former nuclear negotiator under the President Rafsanjiani, the race is a matter restricted to just the Principlists and the Reformists. According to polls issued over the course of the past days, Rowani and Mohammed Bagher Qalibaf, former Pasdaran and the current Mayor of Tehran, are expected to pass the first round and to get access to the runoff. As reported by the Wall Street Journal, polls indicate that even Mr. Jalili has some chances to emerge within the Conservative faction, as an alternative to Mr. Qalibaf. Jalili enjoys widespread appeal from the Conservatives. He is known for being a hardliner and for his past within the ranks of the Basji militia. He took part to the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war.
It's very hard to forecast who will win. As far as the Conservative faction is concerned, Leader Khamenei is supposed to prefer Jalili instead of Qalibaf. The former has proved his loyalty to the Rahbar and has been appointed by him as the Secretary of the SNSC. His continuous proclaims in favour of a major role for Shi'ism and his emphasis on Islam probably make him the ideal candidate - beyond Ali Akbar Velayati, a former Foreign Minister, who has less chances according to polls. The latter, Qalibaf, despite his membership within the Conservatives, is a former-Pasdaran. The high legitimacy he enjoys among the rank and file of the IRGC makes Khamenei's alliance with him more complicated, considering the bad experience with the then loyal Ahmadinejad and the then ensued power struggle fought against him as well.
On the other hand, Rowani is the only candidate belonging to the Reformist camp. He is known to be a moderate - and that is why Reza Aref resigned in favour of him. He advocates for more freedom of expression. However, the fact is that whoever becomes President, the domestic situation in Iran will hardly undergo a shift toward more pluralism as well as less autocracy. Iran is a country whose population is mostly composed of young men and women demanding for more freedom and more chances. The economic plight due to sanctions imposed by the West entails that the new government is supposed to come to terms with both the U.S. and the International community on the nuclear issue. The situation in Syria will also be a critical test for the new President.
Nevertheless, a part from International issues which could impose some constraints on the establishment, the domestic landscape will unlikely show any changes. In other words, despite both the opportunities and the limits coming from outside the country, and apart from the belief system shared by the Reformists, institutional mechanisms of the political system will block any possibilities to change things at the domestic level. The experience of the Khatami Era is telling. Indeed, power is in the hands of a cluster of bearded clerics and even if Rowani claims to be a Reformist - just like Khatami - we should not forget that any criticism against the power structure of the Islamic Republic has so far come from "the inside". They may disagree on the nature of the Islamic Republic but no-one of them calls into question the existence of the Islamic Republic itself.
The most concerning aspect of all of this is that the Iranian civil society has been keeping quiet and is not politically represented. Iranian citizens are alien from debates about the nature of the Islamic Republic, most of them were born after the 1978-79 events and during the revolutionary period they were unaware infants. The highest stake in Iran is represented by the future of this generation knocking-at-the-door-of-modernity. Things might change only at the price of both a moving-back of the clerics from grabbing power and the promotion of more political and institutional democratization as well as more socio-economic openness. But clerics themselves are very far-away from taking into consideration such ominous possibilities. Today's elections in Iran will unlikely solve problems Iranian civil society has been facing for the past several years.