After Raisi funeral, Iran's focus turns to vote for successor

Iranian women voters showing their ink-stained fingers in a file picture from February 28, 2024 (-)
Iranian women voters showing their ink-stained fingers in a file picture from February 28, 2024 (-)

After Iran mourned president Ebrahim Raisi, who died in a helicopter crash, the nation's focus turns to the election for his successor, with the conservative camp seeking a loyalist to supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

The lead-up to the June 28 vote has opened the field to a broad range of hopefuls. The big question now is how many of them will have their candidacies approved by the Guardian Council, a conservative-dominated vetting body.

Ultraconservative Raisi, who had more than a year left of his term, died on May 19 alongside his foreign minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian and six others when their helicopter crashed into a fog-shrouded mountainside.

They were laid to rest after funeral rituals lasting several days that drew huge crowds of mourners.

The June vote will be held during a turbulent time, as the Gaza war rages between Iran's arch-foe Israel and Tehran-backed Palestinian militant group Hamas, and amid continued diplomatic tensions over Iran's nuclear programme.

Iran also faces sustained economic hardship, exacerbated by tough sanctions reimposed by the United States after it withdrew from a landmark 2015 nuclear deal.

Khamenei, who has the final say in all matters of state, has assigned Raisi's vice president, Mohammad Mokhber, 68, to assume interim duties for the next few weeks and organise the June election.

Media reports suggest Mokhber himself plans a run, as do parliament speaker Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf and several prominent former officials.

Among other hopefuls, ultraconservative former nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili was one of the first to announce his desire to stand.

Other contenders include moderate former foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, and centrist Ali Larijani, a former parliament speaker.

Populist ex-president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has so far kept voters guessing and said he is "checking the conditions to decide whether to register".

"We have to wait for positive developments in the country," he added.

- Vetting process -

In late 2022, Iran was rocked by nationwide protests sparked by the death in custody of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Iranian Kurd, following her arrest in Tehran for an alleged breach of the strict dress code for women.

Hundreds of people, including dozens of security personnel, were killed and thousands arrested.

Analyst Abbas Abdi told the reformist newspaper Hammihan that if Iran's "protesting community" sees an opportunity for change, it "will show its protest, activism and responsibility through participating in the election".

He said he was "sure that the reformists will win by a huge margin", but only if they are allowed to stand -- a major concern after the disqualification of many hopefuls from previous elections.

Abdi added that if the authorities permit a broad spectrum of candidates to run this time, "it will create the necessary hope in the people and lead to high participation".

Candidate registration begins on May 30 and closes on June 3. Hopefuls will then be vetted by the 12-member Guardian Council, which has barred many candidates in the part, among them Ahmadinejad and Larijani.

Recent parliamentary and presidential elections have seen declining turnout, despite efforts by the authorities to encourage voters to go to the polls.

Ahead of Iran's March 1 parliamentary election, the Guardian Council disqualified tens of thousands of hopefuls.

With many of those barred reformists or moderates, the vetting helped conservative and ultraconservative factions to tighten their grip on power in an election that saw the lowest turnout since the Islamic revolution of 1979.

- Low voter turnout -

The 2021 election that brought Raisi to power also saw many reformist and moderate figures disqualified. Turnout hit a record low for a presidential election.

During his years in office, Raisi faced a barrage of criticism from former officials and activists, including over his handling of an already fragile economy.

Raging inflation, rampant unemployment and a plummeting rial dogged Raisi's presidency, while his government failed to clinch a deal with Washington to revive the nuclear deal and lift sanctions.

He also faced criticism for the government's handling of the street protests sparked by Amini's death.

More recently, spillover from the Gaza war saw tensions with Israel skyrocket and climax in mid-April when Iran carried out its first-ever direct attack against Israel.

Iranian forces and allied groups unleashed hundreds of drones and missiles, most of which were intercepted by Israel and its partners.

Amid all the turmoil, Iran's leaders have urged a calm election process.

On Monday, the new parliament opened its first session with a message from Khamenei urging lawmakers to avoid "useless media contests and harmful political controversies".

On Tuesday, Ghalibaf won re-election as speaker with the support of 198 of Iran's 287 MPs, a vote analysts said was likely to diminish his chances of becoming president.

pdm/mz/kir