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Conservatives and reformists in a race for Iran's presidency

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With the continued Western foreign policy focus on the Middle East, Central and South Asia, Iran's immediate political development is of special interest. Iran sits between the three regions in which the US and its allies have been waging wars as far back as the past seven and a half years. These wars, and the alliances and the coalitions of convenience formed around them affect Iran's internal politics; but, also, Iran has had a direct impact on its neighbours, such as Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.

For these reasons, many eyes are on the upcoming 12 June Iranian presidential election. The outcome of the election will help determine the direction and tempo of Iran's continued role in the region as well as reformulate the multi-facted coalition of power brokers within the country.

There are two main contenders in the election: sitting president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and former prime minister Mir-Hossein Musavi. Broadly speaking, the main choice is between a conservative and a reformist.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has had a memorable stay as the sixth president, holding his post for nearly four years. The conservative 'principalist' camp has grudgingly ligned up behind Ahmadinejad. Slow to unite, the principalists believed the election would be contested by members of their own camp, with the many who were opposed to the current president having hoped to replace him with a leader more to their liking.

Some key conservative groups have, as yet, refrained from endorsing president Ahmadinejad, and it is possible that they'll remain officially neutral. Of these currently neutral groups, some key members have endorsed the current president, though, at the same time, some prominent conservatives have voiced their apprehension. For example, the influencial speaker of the parliament, Ali Larijani, has many times butted heads with the president and he currently remains silent on the election. His silence is audible, signaling his disagreement with the president, and potentially leaves the door open for disgruntled conservatives to vote for Musavi.

The union of conservative groups around Ahmadinejad has not only been incomplete, it has also been slow to come. The conservative clergy have especially been silent, many of the main leaders and groups still delay giving an endorsement. It has been no secret that many of the clergy have been unhappy with Ahmadinejad's performance, and some may be worried about his realignment of greater power in the hands of the presidency, thanks to the active support of the military's Revolutionary Guard (IRGC).

President Ahmadinejad does have a group of loyal supporters, yet a potentially larger segment of the conservative camp seems only willing to lend him its support for purely strategic reasons.

Farideh Farhi, a scholar and expert on Iran's contemporary politics, has written that The Followers and Leadership and Imam Front, "a coalition of 14 conservative groups led by traditional conservative groups such as the bazaar-based Islamic Coalition Party and Islamic Engineers Society signaled the calculation that Ahmadinejad is the only candidate who can keep the presidency in the conservative column."

Mir-Hossein Musavi has managed to surprise many by emerging as a serious contender for the presidency. His campaign has been bolstered by the endorsement and support of the reformist camp represented by previous president Mohammad Khatami. It remains to be seen if this group can simultaneously provide adequate electoral support and administrative clout to defeat the seemingly better organized conservative camp.

Musavi has been campaigning as a candidate that can bridge the gap between reformists and principalists. He has been articulating somewhat of a middle ground in order to steal away disgruntled conservative votes from the current president. He has also been campaigning to confront the fundamental economic problems that ail the poor, as well as maintain a level-headed foreign policy that will seek to engage with neighbouring countries and the West.

Musavi's wife, Zahra Rahnavard, has joined him on the campaign trail. "Rahnavard has used her status as a respected sculptor and intellectual to break the mould. Besides accompanying her husband, she has written articles drumming up support for his campaign. One piece called for the election to focus on removing discrimination against women," writes Robert Tait for the Guardian.

Rahnavard has also a history of writing on Western colonialism and the importance of the veil, bridging conservative and reformist views in her political activities.

The reformists, somewhat like the principalists, lack complete unity. A second prominent reformist candidate is also in the running, former parliamentary speaker Mehdi Karrubi. Karrubi has refused to stand down in favour of Musavi, and though he isn't expected to win, he may take key votes from both top candidates.

As Musavi picks up steam, president Ahmadinejad has been working to garner enough support to have a clear majority in the first round of polls. It is quite likely that the race will lead to a second round, under which circumstances conservatives worry that opposition votes may be picked up by Musavi.

Among the list of advantages enjoyed by president Ahmadinejad is the fact that his allies occupy key election posts. These can be used to rig the system to disqualify votes and command members of supporting organizations such as the military to vote for him. For this reason, Musavi may need a strong lead in order to come out on top.

Who wins the coming election is only one point of interest. Perhaps equally as importnat will be the alliances and enmities that are generated by this very heated race. President Ahmadinejad has faced a great deal of opposition from conservatives during his stint in office, and the future president may find himself similarly hamstrung by a fractured parliament and oppositional state institutions.

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