TEHRAN: Six days remain before Iran’s presidential hopefuls take their battle to the ballot boxes, but reformists here are already in the throes of an electoral struggle that could prove more decisive than Friday’s vote. The contest they are waging now is among themselves: Leading reformists are striving to unify ranks around one candidate ahead of an election in which they face fierce competition from conservatives.
Success in forging an alliance could open a path for a reformist candidate into the second round – and perhaps the presidency – and breathe new life into an election that has left some voters feeling unexcited, analysts and political figures said.
Elias Hazrati, a four-time former MP and current editor-in-chief of the reformist daily newspaper Etemaad, said the effort was being orchestrated by a group of seven politicians, under the leadership of former presidents Mohammad Khatami and Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.
The seven have been holding consultations with reformist candidates Hassan Rouhani and Mohammad Reza Aref in a bid to convince one of the two to drop out of the race and later be appointed first vice president.
“Saturday or Sunday the outcome will be clear,” Hazrati said.
The creation of a coalition would energize an embattled reformist camp, which was left feeling “shocked and helpless” after the Guardian Council disqualified Rafsanjani from standing in the election, Hazrati said.
“Any group desires to send their own best team in its best condition to the competition,” he said. “In order for any election to have legitimacy, you need to have a high turnout and at the same time a tight competition, real competition.”
Hazrati believes the reformists’ best team would have represented by Khatami, who he said opted not to enter the race because the former president “thought the atmosphere for his participation was not ready.”
Their second choice was Rafsanjani, whose disqualification has served to demotivate voters, he said.
“If there’s a match between two teams, and these two teams aren’t strong enough, then nobody will be ready to watch it. But if they are quite strong then people will devote themselves to it and they may even stay in the stadium from 3 a.m. before an afternoon match to watch it,” he said.
Ebrahim Motaghi, a professor of political science at Tehran University, said that compared to the last election in 2009, this contest has seen less enthusiasm among voters due to a lack of polar competition among the candidates.
“In the previous election in 2009, the whole system could not digest or control that excited situation,” he said. “The level of activity exceeded the capacity or capabilities of the system, or the national political rationality of the political elites. That was why it ended up in a big challenge. But this time in this election, there is less political excitement.”
But the formation of an alliance backed by Khatami and Rafsanjani could dramatically alter the electoral landscape at a crucial time when analysts say many Iranians are still deciding which candidate will get their vote.
“In Iran people generally make up their mind in the last few days before the vote,” said Fouad Izadi, a professor of political communications at Tehran University.
Both Hazrati and Motaghi agreed that the final week ahead of an election tends to be the most decisive period in Iranian politics.
“Those people who are on top might topple down and the others might go up in the polls,” Hazrati said.
“In Iran it’s very difficult to predict [who is leading the race]. Until the very last moment it will not be clear,” Motaghi said. “When the campaign is over then Iranians decide.”
Regardless of whether a reformist alliance is formed, Hazrati said turnout would likely be high as in previous presidential elections.
“In Iran people are not obliged to vote. They vote out of their love and devotion to the ruling system, which is the only Shiite ruling system in the world,” he said. “Even if there were only one candidate, Iranians would vote, because they want this Shiite system to be prolonged and sustained.”
But Motaghi said a victory for a reformist candidate would be necessary to resuscitate the ailing political career of Rafsanjani’s camp after it suffered its latest blow of his disqualification from the polls.
Rafsanjani’s exclusion from the election comes after he was dislodged in 2011 as the head of the Assembly of Experts, a powerful body tasked with choosing and if necessary removing the supreme leader.
“This election is their last chance. And this will only materialize if they fully understand the rationality of coalitions,” Motaghi said.