Iranian President Hassan Rouhani was re-elected on Friday. He beat his challenger Ebrahim Raisi in a landslide, earning 57% of the votes to Raisi’s 38%.
Many had thought that Rouhani would face a serious challenge since much of his campaign promises in 2013 hadn’t come to fruition. He had promised to improve the economy and was able to garner support for the joint nuclear deal signed with the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and Germany (P5+1) by saying there would be $50 billion in investments once the deal was signed. Unfortunately for many Iranians, who are in dire economic straits, Rouhani hasn’t been successful at easing much of their pain.
That said the conservative candidates weren’t able to chip away at Rouhani’s support base. In fact, Rouhani increased his tally from 2013. Conservatives had thought that by coalescing around one preferred candidate they would be able to thwart a second term for Rouhani. They actually decreased their tally from four years ago.
The election was significant, not because Rouhani was re-elected, but due in large part to several other issues. First, Rouhani’s main challenger, Raisi, is widely assumed to be the favored candidate to replace the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. If so, the electoral defeat could be blow to any attempts at an easy transition of power after the current Supreme Leader passes.
Second, reformists swept to victories in city council elections in most major cities. The knock on effect could be a widening of political space for a more robust conversation about the future of Iran. To date, much of that has been limited to the unelected portion of the Iranian political establishment.
Third, reformists have also set themselves up for success in future elections. Rouhani’s first vice president Eshaq Jahangiri proved himself a savvy politician during the debates prior to the election. Iranian social media lionized him with various memes lauding his performance.
But reformists, Rouhani specifically, must find a way to reinvigorate the economy and provide more opportunities for most of the Iranian population. A stagnate economy and years of draconian sanctions have stifled economic opportunity and growth. The nuclear accord was supposed to alleviate some of that pain, but due in large part to US-led sanctions that remain in place (since they have nothing to do with the nuclear program) Iran’s access to financing for projects or investments remain curtailed.
To be successful and really push for change, Rouhani, who has been given more latitude than his reformist predecessor Mohammad Khatami in large part because is more of an insider, must be more successful at reconnecting Iran to international markets. If he does that, it will be tough for the Supreme Leader to try to silence the reformist platform in future elections.