Saeed Rahnema is a retired professor of political science and public policy at York University
For the 12th time since the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1979, Iranians will go to the polls on May 19 to vote for the lesser of two evils. According to the Islamic Republic's constitution, only men who believe in the "absolute sovereignty of the jurist [Ayatollah]" can be nominated for the office of the president. The Guardian Council, a 12-member body of clerics and Islamic lawyers appointed by the Supreme Leader, decides who is eligible to have his name put on the ballot. Of those ratified, one is the regime's favourite candidate. The establishment's "machine" – mosques, religious foundations, Islamic Guards (IRGC) and Basij militia – are then mobilized under the direction of the Office of the Supreme Leader to ensure his victory.
Over the past nearly four decades, the Islamic regime has successfully eliminated all secular left and liberal opposition and reduced electoral participation to its own two factions: The hardliners, now calling themselves "Principlists," and the pragmatists or so-called "Reformers." Both factions, with their own internal divisions, are, to differing degrees, an integral part of a clerical-military-business oligarchy which evolved through the postrevolutionary years. They are part of a new dominant class formed by the families and friends of clerics and the Islamic guards, who now, through "privatization" programs, own industries, mines, agribusinesses, prime real estate and banks, with overflowing corruption.
Despite the undemocratic arrangement, and the fact of limited power of the President's Office compared to the supra-state run by the Supreme Leader, many Iranians, fearing ever-worsening situations, turn out to strategically vote against the regime's candidate of choice. Ironically, in several cases, namely in 1997 and 2001, their strategy succeeded to vote out the regime's candidate. It was after these humiliating experiences that the regime resorted to "engineering" the elections in favour of its candidate, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in 2005 and 2009. In the 2009 elections, two prominent "Reformer" candidates (both under house arrest since) ran against him. Realizing that Mr. Ahmadinejad had no chance of winning, the regime orchestrated an electoral coup, which led to the mass uprising known as the Green Movement and the brutal suppression that ensued.
In the upcoming elections, the reformers' main candidate is Hassan Rouhani, the incumbent President, who has now fallen out of favour with the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei. Despite his other failures, Mr. Rouhani's success in reaching the nuclear deal – favoured by the vast majority of Iranians – has put him in a solid position.
One of the three ratified Principlist candidates, Ayatollah Ebrahim Raisi, is the controversial custodian of the shrine of the eighth Shia Imam, the largest and richest religious endowment. Mr. Raisi, a.k.a. the "Massacre Ayatollah," was a member of a quadrumvirate appointed by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1988 for the summary trials and executions of more than 5,000 political prisoners. The other is the present mayor of Tehran – a former head of police and a commander of the IRGC – who boasted about personally beating Green Movement demonstrators. The third one is linked to the first Shia terrorist group.
The elections are being watched by foreign and regional powers. The Israeli right wing and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu prefer a hard-liner candidate to show that Iran is an "existential threat" to Israel, as they did using Mr. Ahmadinejad's nonsensical pronouncements about the Holocaust and Israel. So does Saudi Arabia, Iran's main rival in the region, hoping that a hard-liner would further deteriorate Iran-U.S. relations and put them on a collision course. The Trump administration, however, will likely follow its confrontational policy towards Iran regardless of the election outcome. As for the Russians, interestingly, the disclosure of a meeting between President Vladimir Putin's special envoy with the hard-liner candidate Mr. Raisi raises concerns of Russia meddling in favour of the hard-liners.
Barring another electoral coup or military incidents with the United States, it is safe to assume that the Iranian people will once again vote against the favourite hard-liner candidate. The main battleground between the two factions is the selection of a successor for the Supreme Leader, in which the "reformers" have no chance given that their most prominent candidate, Hashemi Rafsanjani, a founder of the regime and former president, had a mysterious heart attack just few months ago.