55 million eligible Iranian voters have started voting to select their next President, on Friday, May 19. If no candidate wins at least 50% of the vote, there will be a runoff next Friday, May 26. Polling suggests that there very well may be a winner tonight.
The outcome will impact the implementation of the landmark 2015 nuclear deal, undermined by the US Trump administration, although still kept on track. Trump’s election and the threat of new sanctions have undermined the investment climate, and although Iran’s currency is stabilized, unemployment remains high, particularly among the young.
The fight is between two religious scholars with two clearly distinct platforms. That is almost a prerequisite since every candidacy must be approved by the Guardian Council of the Revolution, made up of 12 legal consuls and religious scholars.
With the promise of foreign direct investment and a platform of more gender-balanced politics, the 68-Hassan Rouhani is the front-runner. Political tradition is on his side, as all Presidents since 1985 have had a second term.
His main opponent is the 57-yeay old Ebrahim Raisi, a conservative, often tipped to be the next Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, and a staunch critic of the nuclear deal. Raisi has made a name for allegedly being involved in the execution of political prisoners in the 1980s. He appeals to rural Iran by trumping up his conservative credentials, criticizing the signature of a UNESCO agreement recognizing the equal rights of men and women to access education. His rhetoric is traditionally anti-Western and is opposed to foreign direct investment, enjoying the support of domestic state-owned conglomerates that have thrived during years of embargo. If Raisi loses, he will remain a formidable foe.
The prize of these elections may be greater than a four-year mandate. If the current 77-year-old Khamenei were to die, the president will become the next interim Supreme Leader. That could affect the character of the Iranian regime.