Candidate selection process for Iranian presidential election kicks off, amid generational conflict and ambitions of ultra-radicals

Ahmadinejad

The deadline for submitting nominations for Iran’s upcoming June 28 presidential elections closed on June 3, and 81 candidates have submitted their applications to the internal selection process management of the Guardian Council, the powerful institutional body that, among its duties, has that of approving every political candidacy through a selection process that is somewhat opaque and often deemed arbitrary.

The Guardian Council is composed of 12 members appointed for a six-year term, of whom six are religious jurists (faqih) appointed directly by the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, and six, on the other hand, are jurists who are experts in various fields of law, appointed by the Supreme Court’s top leadership, which, however, is itself appointed by the Supreme Leader himself. The main function of the Council is to oversee the compatibility of laws passed by the Parliament with the Constitution and the principles of the Islamic religion, with the power to veto them if it determines their profiles of incompatibility from a normative and religious perspective. On the other hand, a function of no less importance is the screening of electoral candidacies, for which the Council finally approves or denies the eligibility of individual candidates to run, and the supervision of the elections, which the Council is then called upon to finally approve.

The selection process involves verification of the essential requirements prescribed by the Constitution and laws to run for election, but also, and more importantly, a moral and political evaluation of candidates that often takes on connotations judged to be arbitrary, configuring the Guardian Council as de facto an instrument of the status quo. On several occasions, the reasons for rejecting candidacies have appeared vague or even not officially communicated, raising criticism both inside and outside the country, thus resulting in a clear delegitimization of the democratic principle of elections that the authorities frequently invoke especially in comparison with other authoritarian and top-down systems in the region.

In the handling of nominations for presidential elections, in particular, the selection criterion operated by the Guardian Council has traditionally been very stringent, not only limiting the number of candidates but also frequently operating disqualification processes aimed at blatantly favoring some of them, as was the case, for example, in 2021 during the elections later won by the late President Ebrahim Raisi.

As much as the Supreme Leader appears quite clearly as a kind of primary arbiter in guiding the judgment of the Guardian Council, it must be stressed that this power is nevertheless subordinated to the need to generate a platform of informal consensus among the top echelons of the country’s political, economic, and military system in order to converge on candidacies that can thus enjoy the support of the majority of the power apparatus. Not an unambiguous and solitary decision by the Supreme Leader, therefore, as the Western vulgate often tends to accredit, but rather an articulated negotiating process aimed at determining the choice of one or more candidates objectively endowed with the ability to govern while then enjoying political consensus, in order to avoid the risk – as has repeatedly happened in the context of legislatures dominated by conservatives as much as by reformists and pragmatists – of an excessively polarized presidency and therefore lacking the necessary capacity for action. It follows how the process of candidate selection appears to be strongly influenced by the balances of the moment in the political environment, thus presenting itself at this stage as highly volatile and factionalized as a result of the increasingly heated clash in the generational transition between the first and second generation of power.

The upcoming presidential elections, as well as the parliamentary elections of last March 1, are considered to be of particular importance because they will see the election of a president who may have to deal with the delicate issue of the succession of the Supreme Leader, who is now 85 years old and not in good health. It is a transition that promises to be anything but smooth and could hold twists and turns, as in fact was the 1989 transition between the first Supreme Guide, Ruollah Khomeini, and the second, Ali Khamenei, which took place through a constitutional reform process that profoundly changed the role and power of the Supreme Guide himself.

In principle, then, the dynamics of these elections would dictate that Iran’s first-generation political leadership should opt to support a “system candidate,” as Raisi also was, to ensure the possibility of the least traumatic and confrontational top political transition possible. At the same time, however, there arises for the authorities of the Islamic Republic the problem of voter turnout and that outward legitimacy provided by voter participation, which in the last elections have decreased dramatically compared to the traditional averages of the past leading to embarrassment and exacerbating the feeling of a progressive as well as inexorable disconnection of society from institutions and widespread disillusionment with the system itself.

This reason could thus push the political establishment to carefully and cautiously evaluate the admission of candidates from the reformist or pragmatic area, who are certainly more palatable to a large part of the younger social fabric and capable of attracting more voters to the polls. With the risk, however, of favoring a plebiscite in the direction of these candidates and altering the difficult balances in which the polarized and highly conflicted politics of the conservative system moves.

This is a dilemma of no small magnitude, that must be resolved by next June 11, when the Guardian Council must necessarily deliver its verdict and inform Iranians which of the 81 candidates who applied were deemed eligible to participate in the presidential election.

Among them are a number of well-known faces in politics, both from the conservative and reformist and pragmatic areas, most notably the ultra-conservative former president Mahmood Ahmadinejad, the equally ultra-conservative Saeed Jalili, former negotiator for the nuclear program agreements, the former IRGC general and now newly elected speaker of parliament Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, Tehran’s Mayor Reza Zakani, former Rohani’s administration vice-president Eshaq Jahangiri, longtime politician Ali Larijani, former Central Bank governor Abdolnaser Hemmati, former IRGC general Vahid Haganian, and at least four women, Zoher Elahian, Hajar Chenarani and Rafat Bayat, from the conservative “principalist” area, and Hamida Zarabadi, from the reformist area. No women have ever been approved to run in presidential elections in the past, and expectations for a female candidate remain extremely low on this occasion as well.

Of these 81, at least 46 can be considered to be from the conservative area, divided fairly evenly between traditionalist “principalists” and ultra-radical “paydari,” while for the remainder a few names traceable to the reformist and pragmatic areas can be identified, as well as numerous independents for whom it is not easy to identify a more precise location.

In contrast, finally, the three main names from the reformist and pragmatic areas, former presidents Khatami and Rohani and the popular former foreign minister Zarif, who for days had raised the hopes of both a large section of Iranians and many Western governments, did not register for the elections.

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