How Rouhani triumphed: Iranian election could spell trouble for hard-liners

Iranians disillusioned by a stolen election were coaxed to turn out for last year's ballot. They elected a centrist president and have reshaped Iran's political map.

Vahid Salemi/AP
In this Monday, June 10, 2013 photo, Iranian President elect, Hasan Rouhani, waves from his bus during a campaign tour to the western city of Sanandaj. Rouhani's election victory came as a surprise and followed a bitterly disputed presidential vote in 2009 that led to street protests and a brutal crackdown.

When the architect awoke on the day of the presidential election, she was unsure if she should vote. Like many here, Zhaale was still fuming over a fraud-tainted vote in 2009 that led to months of violence, a fierce crackdown, and vows to never cast another ballot.

But by the end of Jun 14, 2013, Zhaale and millions of other disgruntled Iranians had been persuaded by friends and family to turn out. The result was a shock victory for centrist cleric Hassan Rouhani that set Iran on a path that has been transformative for its relations with the West, yielding an interim nuclear deal. At home, the election has raised hopes of change and moderation, and, for some Iranians, it has helped to ameliorate the grim memories of 2009.

How the election was won, and the blow it dealt to hard-liners who prevailed in 2009, is rippling through Iranian politics. Hard-line and conservative factions are on guard against a repeat of what they call the “sedition” of 2009. This week the conservative deputy speaker of parliament, for example, warned that reformers could create “a new sedition” in parliamentary elections due in 2016. “There is a danger of change in the situation in the parliament,” Mohammad Reza Bahonar told Fars News.

For voters like Zhaale – a pseudonym for a young and Westernized Iranian – last year's presidential election showed that ordinary voters could still have a voice in Iranian politics, however circumscribed. “I made a decision not to vote again four years before, and it was hard to change,” says Zhaale, who remains haunted by the scenes of 2009, when she and her mother were beaten during the street protests.

Perhaps more importantly, the election also showed that Iranians are beginning to come to terms with the bitter legacy of 2009, a period of turmoil which some Revolutionary Guard commanders later acknowledged brought the Islamic Republic as close to downfall as any other event since the 1979 revolution­. Scores died in the crackdown.

An Iranian analyst said it was an “emotional decision” to vote this time after such violence. At the time, “I thought it would not be possible to sit here and not be hostile to the police, the Revolutionary Guard and Basij [militia]” says the analyst, who requested anonymity. “The vote [for Rouhani] showed we passed through that. When [conservatives] still say ‘sedition’ we laugh; it is meaningless now. We ‘seditionists’ went and voted.”

Zhaale says her mother and colleagues pushed her to turn out for the election, telling her that her vote would count. She spoke with family in the city of Shiraz, and, as the day wore on, she received text messages from her cousin, then her uncle.

Personal and political endorsements

Along with these personal appeals, endorsements also came from senior politicians. Former presidents Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and reformer Mohammad Khatami Rouhani endorsed Rouhani and told Iranians that their vote mattered. 

“I had little hope but then decided: It doesn’t matter what happened last time. Maybe I can do something this time,” recalls Zhaale.

Similar last-minute calculations were made across Iran, clogged polling stations well into the night as voting hours were repeatedly extended. When the result became clear – that Rouhani had secured a first-round victory over several conservative candidates – Iran’s streets erupted, this time in jubilation.  

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei had spent months before the vote calling for a high turnout, which he equated with a stamp of approval for Iran's ruling system. He called the high turnout a “political epic,” and endorsed the victory of Rouhani, a decades-long regime insider trusted by Khamenei.

One of those laying the groundwork for a Rouhani victory over rival conservative candidates – believed to have Mr. Khamenei’s blessing – was Saeed Allahbedashti, a bearded activist and son of a well-known reformist cleric, who led Rouhani’s youth campaign.

At humble meetings in the apartments of fellow supporters early last year, he realized that the campaign faced an uphill task to convince voters to turn out.

“Unfortunately, right or wrong, a large portion of society took a pessimistic view of ballot boxes after 2009,” says Mr. Allahbedashti. “The first step was to tell people why they had to take part. The second step was why their vote had to be for Hassan Rouhani.”

Mood shift

In April, Allahbedashti linked his candidate directly to Mr. Khatami, who stepped down in 2005 and remains one of Iran's most popular politicians. At a campaign rally in Yazd, supporters were given posters showing both men that read: “Hail to Khatami; Hi to Rouhani.”

That image resonated across social media. But it would still be many weeks before the possibility of a Rouhani victory would feel tangible. Allahbedashti finally felt the shift in mood during a campaign event where some supporters chanted the names of Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, the 2009 opposition candidates who remain under house arrest.

These provocative chants at an event he had organized landed Allahbedashti in jail for 12 days, and he missed the final stage of the campaign. He was named this week as Rouhani’s advisor for youth affairs.

“I don’t want to be like people who say, ‘We were fortune-tellers,’” he says. “But believe me, we knew Rouhani had this potential to be a loved and unifying figure.”

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