With 14 days left before the June 14, 2013, presidential election in Iran, the US-based research company IPSOS released a tracking poll of the eight candidates approved to run by the government.
Ranking third from the bottom was the country’s former chief nuclear negotiator, Hassan Rouhani, who polled at 6.5 percent – double-digits behind the early favourite, Mohammad Baqer Ghalibaf, mayor of Tehran.
By June 10, Rouhani had improved his ratings, but was still stuck in the middle of the pack. But as he gained momentum, he got hit by disqualification rumours, raising doubts he could even finish the race.
Yet on election night four days later, Rouhani had surged to the top, shocking political observers. In the final tally, he beat Ghalibaf by a 34.42 percent margin, winning the presidency with more than half of the votes, avoiding a second round.
On May 19, Iranians will head to the polls once again. Will they re-elect Rouhani, who had pulled the country out of stifling sanctions, but who, observers say, has yet to deliver on wider political, economic and social reforms?
Analysts agree the president is “well-positioned” for another term, but in Iran’s atmosphere of political surprises, some hesitate to make definitive predictions before the ballots are even cast.
“I won’t comment on whether or not he will get reelected, because we all know how that normally ends,” Ariane Tabatabai, an Iran political analyst and visiting professor at Georgetown University in Washington, DC, told Al Jazeera.
But Tabatabai said Rouhani “is the only viable candidate currently running” who has cultivated enough “political and social capital” across the country in the last five years. She added that the Iranian system “tends to favour stability and continuity over disruption”.
Since 1981, every Iranian president had consistently won a second term including Mahmoud Ahmadinejad during the contested 2009 election. But there have been suggestions that Rouhani could break that streak this year.
Writing for Al-Monitor website in September, Tehran-based journalist Saeid Jafari pointed to the “dissatisfaction” of several sectors towards the president – from the cultural community to the lower-income population. “Iran’s ailing economy is perhaps the biggest challenge that Rouhani and his administration face,” he wrote, warning that without delivering on his promises, the president could be a one-term president.
I think Rouhani will be re-elected. I think that Ayatollah Khamenei believes that during the Trump administration, Iran cannot elect a leader who is inexperienced.
In his New Year message on March 20, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei also declared that the Rouhani government’s economic policies have fallen short.
A look at the real numbers offers a mixed bag for Rouhani. Latest figures from the Statistical Centre of Iran showed over 12 percent unemployment. But the economy also posted a 7.2 percent GDP growth mostly driven by post-sanction oil production. Inflation is also at its lowest in 10 years, according to the Central Bank of Iran.
“The economy has picked up some [pace], but not enough for the public,” Tabatabai said. “This means that he has lost some of that enthusiastic support he had received thanks to the [nuclear deal]. So even if elected, he will have to work to gain the public’s trust again.”
Another crucial development that could determine Rouhani’s electoral prospects is a consensus among the opposition factions to support a single challenger, said Payam Mohseni, director of Harvard University’s Iran Project.
“In the last presidential election, Iran’s conservatives were unable to rally behind one unified candidate, which split the opposition vote and cohesion, and enabled Rouhani to edge to victory in the first round,” Mohseni told Al Jazeera. “Rouhani, unlike his rivals, was able to attain support from Iran’s reformists, moderates, and a notable portion of conservative elites, whose businesses and interests were harmed by economic sanctions.”
The president is likely to face hardliner candidate Ebrahim Raeisi, who is the custodian of the Imam Reza shrine in Mashhad. Another potential is Hamid Baqaei, the former chief of staff of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
The registration of presidential candidates started on Tuesday lasting until April 15. The final list of candidates is expected in late April.
Although Rouhani has yet to declare his candidacy, his spokesperson Mohammad Bagher Nowbakht has indicated the president will run for re-election.
In recent weeks, Rouhani has been hard at work, meeting constituents around the country, from the remote eastern corner of Zahedan, near the border with Pakistan and Afghanistan, to Ahvaz near the Iraqi border to the west.
In his February 10 speech in Tehran, commemorating the 38th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, Rouhani also tried to fire up hardliners, delivering a rebuke to US President Donald Trump and some leaders from the Gulf region, calling them “novice politicians”.
“Those who threaten our government and armed forces should know that the Iranian nation are integrated and vigilant and will stand against the enemies forever,” he said. “We tell the enemies that this place is called Iran, the land of lions, and nobody can seek advantage of this great country.”
While rhetorically, Rouhani has taken a more hardline stance in Iranian foreign policy in response to the Trump administration, Mohseni noted, not that much has changed in the president’s actions, as he is “very much in favour of detente”.
But the Rouhani administration has also vowed to take action if the US repeats its military air strikes against Syria.
In the end, the 2017 presidential race will go down to the preference of the supreme leader, and it looks like he wants stability in the country, said Saeid Golkar, a senior fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and lecturer at Northwestern University in Chicago.
“I think Rouhani will be re-elected,” Golkar told Al Jazeera. “I think that Ayatollah Khamenei believes that during the Trump administration, Iran cannot elect a leader who is inexperienced.”
Golkar said that despite the supreme leader’s sharp rhetoric, he remains pragmatic when it comes to governing, adding that Khamenei does not want to repeat the election of someone like Ahmadinejad. He also said that Rouhani’s potential rivals, who look like a repeat of the 2013 election line-up, are unpopular and seen by voters as “corrupted”.
Tabatabai shared that opinion, saying those who have declared to run so far “lack one of two things: Credibility within the political establishment or popular support”.
Still, Golkar said, hardline opponents will try to mobilise voters against Rouhani, to weaken his mandate, thereby preventing him from challenging the supreme leader once re-elected.
Mohseni, of Harvard University, said that although Khamenei and Rouhani are at odds, the supreme leader may still favour Rouhani over other candidates. “Rouhani provides Iran with a good diplomatic face to the international community,” he said.
“Given Rouhani’s lofty economic promises, which was linked to the [lifting of sanctions], he will absorb much of the blame in the likely scenario that Iran’s economic situation does not improve drastically.”
On the night Rouhani was declared president in 2013, one of his supporters in Tehran told Al Jazeera, “Time doesn’t stop. Mr Rouhani should do his job, in a way that, in four more years, at this time, we will gather here again. He shouldn’t disappoint us”.
On May 19, Iranians will deliver their verdict on him.