Many moderate and reformist candidates were disqualified by the country’s Guardian Council, a vetting body dominated by clerics. But public opinion is shifting in favour of a moderate candidate.

As the saying goes “water always finds its way”. Public dissatisfaction in Iran is likely to morph into a higher voter turnout in favour of a lesser-known presidential candidate, Abdolnaser Hemmati, who headed the Iranian Central Bank until he was removed from the post on May 30.

Since Iranians are fed up with limitations on their political rights and freedoms, this apparent shift in support of Hemmati is seen as an act of defiance. Much of the electorate is unhappy with the conservative establishment, including the Guardian Council, a body of clerics with constitutional mandates, which recently barred 32 presidential candidates: 18 conservatives, 14 reformists and moderates. 

“The shock of the first days after disqualification [of reformist candidates] is still strong, but some people and political figures are calling people to change the situation by raising hope for Hemmati,” a Tehran-based journalist and political analyst, who wished to remain anonymous, told TRT World.

Hemmati was a member of Kargozaran or the Executives of Construction of Iran Party, which is known as “a reformist-centrist” political front close to former President Hashemi Rafsanjani, according to the Iranian analyst. Rafsanjani, who publicly supported the reformist President Hassan Rouhani in his bid for the presidency in 2013, died in 2017 under suspicious circumstances, say his family. 

As a moderate face, Hemmati is seen as an underdog who may defeat his presidential rival Ebrahim Raisi, the Chief Justice of Iran, a staunch hardliner from the conservative establishment, who should win easily if turnout is low. 

Ebrahim Raisi, Chief Justice of Iran, shows his identification document as he registers as a candidate for the presidential election at the Interior Ministry, in Tehran, Iran May 15, 2021.
Ebrahim Raisi, Chief Justice of Iran, shows his identification document as he registers as a candidate for the presidential election at the Interior Ministry, in Tehran, Iran May 15, 2021. (Majid Asgaripour/ WANA (West Asia News Agency) / Reuters)

Iran's reformist movement faced a major blow in 2018 when then-US-President Donald Trump pulled out of the nuclear deal and imposed harsher sanctions against the country. A year before Trump's decision, at least 70 percent of Iranians voted in legislative elections. The higher voter turnout was driven by the hope that Rouhani would renegotiate with world powers and lead the country out of economic turmoil. 

With the Guardian Council disqualifying almost all the leading reformists from the presidential bid, ordinary Iranians, especially the younger generation, at first appeared to be wary of participating in the election. But as Hemmati's candidacy was confirmed, the mood on the ground began to shift as younger people and others are taking interest in the presidential race, according to the Tehran-based analyst. 

If the turnout is higher, the analyst said, Hemmati may end up defeating Raisi, who lost to Rouhani in 2017. 

Hemmati now appears to be the best hope for most Iranians, who are seeking democracy and aiming for freedom and social justice. 

As the council's barring of reformists led to public disillusionment for the first few weeks of the announcement, the analyst said Hemmati had a "3/10 chance" to win the elections. 

But now, "his chances are rising,” she added. 

An appealing Hemmati

While most people still feel “twisted” about the elections and “moderators and reformists are not willing to have a part" in it as they feel the stage has already been set for the conservative candidate, regular Iranians need an exit strategy from the current conundrum in a peaceful manner, the analyst said. 

“Right now I hear in the streets that people will vote for Hemmati to say no to this election setup”. 

But Iran’s restrictive politics has already alienated quite a number of ordinary citizens. According to recent polls, about 51 percent of those who are eligible to vote, still don't want to participate in elections or are not sure about whom they will vote for, says the Iranian analyst. 

Iranian police Colonel Mohammad Hemmati talks with a man whose sister, unseen, has been detained by police for not adhering to the strict dress code, in Tehran, April, 23, 2007.
Iranian police Colonel Mohammad Hemmati talks with a man whose sister, unseen, has been detained by police for not adhering to the strict dress code, in Tehran, April, 23, 2007. (Hasan Sarbakhshian / AP)

A recent poll conducted by the Iranian Students Polling Agency (ISPA) in late May has found a 7 percent drop among people, who would “definitely vote” or "likely vote" in the June 18 presidential elections, compared to another poll conducted in the middle of May prior to the Council’s controversial disqualification decision, showing a sharp decline. 

If public opinion shifts in favour of the moderate candidate, the analyst said, the Guardian Council has legal powers to disqualify Hemmati. 

“They [Council members] can stop Hemmati and pull him back from the competition almost any time they want,” she said. 

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Leader, a position which can not be elected by people, directly appoints six jurists in the 12-member Council. The rest of the Council’s members are also indirectly selected by Khamenei. 

The Council could intervene at any hour to prevent Hemmati’s run, but depriving moderates like him of running in the presidential elections, which reformists had won back-to-back in 2013 and 2017, could be seen as too extreme a measure even for a country like Iran. 

“The atmosphere is not so hopeful, but it is not completely dark yet. Still waiting for the best to come!” she adds. 

Who is Hemmati? 

65-year old Hemmati is an economist and experienced banker. In the past, he had worked for different banks like Sina Bank and Bank Melli Iran in the capacity of the Chief Executive Officer. 

In 2018, the Rouhani government appointed him as the governor of the country’s Central Bank. Over the weekend, Rouhani dismissed him from the post on the grounds that he is now a candidate for the presidency. 

While Iranians can elect their presidents and parliamentarians, there are other powerful forces like the Revolutionary Guards, supporters of hardline policies, who directly report to the Supreme Leader Khamenei. Without Khamenei’s approval, no foreign policy decision, including revitalising the nuclear deal with Washington, can be made in Iran. 

The hardliner Guards and the reformist Rouhani government have long been at odds on several fronts from the nuclear deal to economic policies. 

Source: TRT World