Iran’s presidential election has essentially became a two-horse race again after Tehran mayor Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf withdrew from the contest to support fellow conservative Ebrahim Raisi.
After the wildcard candidacy of hardline ex-president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was on April 20 struck down by Iran’s Guardian Council, analysts had anticipated a clear head to head between centrist incumbent Hassan Rouhani and religious judge Ebrahim Raisi, seen by some analysts as odds-on favourite to succeed 77-year-old Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and as someone capable of galvanising conservatives.
However, Qalibaf, a 55-year-old former Republic Guard air force commander and police chief, managed to turn the May 19 election into a three-way contest with a performance that had him only slightly trailing Raisi in the opinion polls.
With President Rouhani’s economic record under attack from both Qalibaf and Raisi, the election campaign has grown increasingly bitter and confrontational in the past week.
Until now, Qalibaf, who lost to Rouhani in 2013, had insisted he would not be stepping aside in favour of Raisi, although analysts say his eventual decision to quit might have proved unavoidable given that the main conservative parties and clerical bodies have thrown their support behind Raisi, a jurist and Shi’ite cleric who studied at the feet of Khamenei.
Having now called on conservative voters to unite behind Raisi, Qalibaf could conceivably upset forecasts that Rouhani was on course for a comfortable victory.
A survey by the state-affiliated Iranian Students Polling Agency published last week had moderate cleric Rouhani’s support at 42%, hardliner Raisi’s at 27% and Qalibaf’s at 25%. Three other candidates, who are polling in the low single digits, remain in the contest. More than 50% of the vote is needed to claim the presidency in the first round. If no candidate breaks that threshold, the two top-placed candidates will face off in a second round scheduled for a week after the first vote.
In announcing his decision to back out of the contest on May 15, Qalibaf criticised the president’s “inefficient and impotent” cabinet. A statement from him carried by Iranian media read: “I should take an important decision to keep the unity of revolutionary forces. I ask all my supporters around the country to use all their capacity to help my brother, Mr Ebrahim Raisi, win the election.”
Raisi himself called Qalibaf’s decision “revolutionary”, according to conservative news agency Tasnim.
In the wake of Qalibaf’s withdrawal, Aniseh Bassiri Tabrizi, a research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London, told Bloomberg that it’s not a given that most Qalibaf supporters will automatically switch to Raisi. “They are both from the conservative camp but draw on different constituencies. Qalibaf speaks more to the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and security apparatus, Raisi more to the traditional conservative” she said.
Raisi faces having to reach out to a wider conservative base in the next few days, Bassiri Tabrizi added, but noted that things are “definitely more difficult for Rouhani now. We cannot take the renewal of his mandate for granted.”
Political analyst Hamid Farahvashian told Reuters he expects Qalibaf's votes will be divided between Rouhani and Raisi. "In Tehran, his votes will go mainly to Rouhani but outside Tehran his supporters will vote for Raisi. However, I don't think there will be a significant impact as Qalibaf got [just] six million votes in 2013," he said.
The other remaining candidates are Vice-President Eshagh Jahangiri, who supports Rouhani and is thought to have simply entered the contest to shield him from attacks, fellow reformer Mostafa Hashemi-Taba, a former industry minister, and Mostafa Mirsalim, a conservative and former culture minister.