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Op-ed: The Dynamics of Populism and Anti-Establishment in the 2017 Iranian Presidential Election

In the lead up to Iran’s May 19th presidential election, analysts were anxious to see whether the Iranian populace will also succumb to the seemingly sweeping global trend of populism, nationalism and anti-globalism. The basis for this anxiety was rooted in a still-stagnant Iranian economy, with high unemployment, in particular among the youth.[i] So how exactly did the election unfold and what can we learn from the campaign and the results?

The Two Candidates

The election essentially narrowed down to two candidates. Hassan Rouhani, the incumbent centrist in the Iranian political spectrum, had the backing of reformists, moderate conservatives and most of civil society. Rouhani’s election in 2013 resulted in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), commonly known as the “Iran Nuclear Deal”, in July 2015. His cabinet of technocrats, which had more PhD’s from American universities than that of former US President Barack Obama[ii], was successful in bringing relative stability back to the Iranian economy. The foreign exchange market was stabilized after a tumultuous period, inflation dropped from around 35% to single-digits and economic growth hit 7.4% after two years of recession.[iii] However, most of the economic growth was the result of a doubling in oil-exports, while the non-oil sector, which creates most of the jobs, only grew by 0.9%.[iv] As a result, unemployment rates remained high, which strengthened the hand of Rouhani’s opposition. Ebrahim Raisi emerged as the candidate of choice for the ultra-conservative factions. He ran on a populist, ultra-nationalist and anti-globalist agenda, and enjoyed the support of Iran’s security and conservative establishment.[v] In many senses, Raisi was running on a similar platform to that of former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, albeit lacking the latter’s charisma.[vi] Ahmadinejad’s populist rhetoric and bombastic style drew comparisons in 2016 between him and then US presidential candidate, Donald Trump.[vii] Thus, Iranians certainly felt a sense of déjà-vu with many of the populist and nationalist campaigns happening around the world, not to mention Raisi’s campaign back home.

Populism or Anti-Establishment?

Comparing the situation of Iranian politics with western notions of political discourse is not very accurate. One reason is the dynamics of the populist vs. anti-establishment vote. In the western political context, Donald Trump, Brexit, Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders had both populist and anti-establishment tones.[viii] However, in the Iranian case, while Raisi exemplified the populist, Rouhani tried to position himself as the anti-establishment candidate.[ix] Towards the homestretch of the campaign, an embattled Rouhani found himself having to excite large crowds by leveling unprecedented criticism against the security and conservative judicial establishment of the Islamic Republic. The combination of a high smart phone penetration rate and the liberalization of higher cell phone internet speeds, led to an exponential increase in the daily use of social media apps such as Telegram and Instagram, which were heavily utilized by the electorate and both campaigns.[x]. Since state-media in Iran is controlled by the conservative establishment, they were taking sides with Raisi.[xi] Thus, the technology factor has not only resulted in a booming tech scene[xii], but it has led to a mini-social revolution that directly affected the election outcome in Rouhani’s favour.

Lessons from an Unexpected Result

The extent of Rouhani’s landslide win was unexpected. Even on Election Day, there was much speculation that it would lead to a second round of voting, which could have put his re-election in jeopardy. Neither Rouhani nor his campaign officials expected to garner 57% of the vote over Raisi’s 39%, with voter turnout being over 70%.[xiii] [xiv] The message from the election was clear: the majority of the population rejected an unrealistic populist economic manifesto offered by Raisi, which included increased cash and baseless promises of unrealistic projections for job creation. Iranians know that fixing economic woes takes time and they entrusted Rouhani with continuing to steer the country through economic and social reforms.

The lessons drawn from the Iranian experience have potential implications for other countries in the region. While there are clear differences in the demographic, economic and geopolitical realities among regional countries, the 2017 Iranian Presidential elections indicate that there is a chance for countries to experience a slow and steady opening to the democratic process. A nation facing a barrage of calls to sanction the ballot, with limited access to a free-flow of information and facing economic distress, decided to vote for the moderate choice at the expense of the populist agenda. This is exactly why Iranian politics is full of surprises, and full of lessons for outside observers.


Mohammad is a fourth year UBC honours physiology student. As a social entrepreneur and educational advocate, he serves as the managing director of STEM Fellowship and is a youth advisor for the Canadian Commission for UNESCO (CCUNESCO), the Canadian Red Cross and Science World BC. As a political junky, he closely follows political developments around the world, in particular those of the Middle East and Iran.


The author would like to acknowledge Batuhan Erdogan and Geoffrey Ching for their time and effort in editing this op-ed.


[i] Scott Peterson. In Iran election, lackluster economy opens door to a populist push. May17th 2017.

[ii] Moises Naim. The Case for Giving Iran's Scholar-Diplomats a Chance. The Atlantic. December 3rd 2013.

[iv] IMF Executive Board Concludes 2016 Article IV Consultation with the Islamic Republic of Iran. The International Monetary Fund (IMF). February 27th 2017.

[v] Thomas Erdbrink. Iran has its own hard-line populist, and he’s on the rise. The New York Times. May 18th 2017.

[vi] Susan Maloney. The State of Iran’s Rouhani: Rouhani v. Raisi. May 18th 2017.

[vii]Michael Axworthy. Donald Trump is an American Ahmadinejad. The Guardian. September 28th 2016

[viii]Lexington, Trumpism is very familiar to European. February 9th 2017.

[ix] Roxane Farmanfarmaian. Iran's presidential election puts populism to the test. Aljazeera. May 10th 2017.

[x] Leyla Khodabakhshi, Iran’s Instagram election sees rivals battle on social media. 2017.

[xi]Ladane Nasseri, Social Media Skirts Censors in Iran as Election Race Heats Up. BBC. May 7th 2017.

[xii]David Inskeep, The Rise of The Internet-Based Economy Shows What's Changed In Iran. NPR. May 17th 2017.

[xiii]Emma Graham-Harrison, Iran election: huge turnout in presidential poll after bitter contest. The Guardian. May 20th 2017.

[xiv]Mick Krever, Mohammed Tawfeeq and Joe Sterling, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani wins re-election in victory for moderates. CNN. May 20th 2017.

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