Qalibaf withdraws from presidential election. what’s next?

Iranian Diplomacy- Tehran mayor Mohammad-Bagher Qalibaf pulled out of the presidential race here on Monday. In the withdrawal statement posted to his campaign’s Telegram channel, Qalibaf said the utmost aspiration for the country and people is currently “to change the status quo”, as he threw support behind Ebrahim Raisi, the other key Principlist candidate, who held a lead over Qalibaf in all surveys carried out in the past couple of weeks.

Several observers found the withdrawal a sign that the Principlist camp was disappointed about the possibility of a run-off. Qalibaf’s campaign seemed to have lost its momentum in the past few days, particularly after the third debate, where Hassan Rouhani made mincemeat of Qalibaf, just as he had done in the 2013 presidential debate. Qalibaf’s withdrawal is thus viewed as a hasty effort to mobilize all forces inside the Principlist camp behind Raisi, with the hope to increase the cleric’s chances by attracting the vote base of Qalibaf.

Writing in pro-reform website Ensaf News, journalist Ali Akrami writes that while the most immediate meaning of Qalibaf’s withdrawal is that he has admitted defeat, the withdrawal does not guarantee that his voter base will be completely relegated to Raisi, because Qalibaf’s base of support is not necessarily Principlist. “Unlike Raisi, Qalibaf was not considered an ‘ideological’ candidate” writes Saeed Jafari in Reformist website Entekhab. “In his 12-year efforts to reach Pasteur [Presidential Office], Qalibaf has tried to portray himself as a technocrat, efficient executive … his support base followed him not for ideological reasons, but for his slogans, and his record in [Tehran] municipality.”

Survey carried out by IPPO, a US-based institute focusing on Iran affairs, statistically supports such analyses. Answering to the question “if your vote changes by any chance by election day, who might be the next best candidate you may vote for?”, 20.1 percent of voters for Qalibaf has opted for Rouhani as the next best choice. 29.8% chose Raisi while 16 percent had answered ‘no one’.

Even before rumors of Qalibaf’s withdrawal had gained momentum, some Principlist figures such a decision would benefit Rouhani. In their interview with the Reformist Fararu website, conservative pundits Hossein Kan’ani Moghaddam and Hossein Ghorbanzadeh (Qalibaf campaign official) argued that Qalibaf’s withdraw would result in Rouhani’s victory in the first round. Ghorbanzadeh, who is also editor-in-chief of Hamshahri, Tehran Municipality’s mouthpiece, had even gone so far as to say that Rouhani advocates were behind the rumor in order to instigate a great fear in their supporters.

Reformist analyst Abbas Abdi had seen the issue from a radically different point of view. A day after the final presidential debate, he advised the Popular Front of Revolutionary Forces to plan for withdrawal of Qalibaf and Raisi in favor of Mostafa Mirsalim, groomed by the conservative Mo’talefeh Party and regarded as a minor candidate. He reasoned that in the debates, Raisi had appeared as an inept figure with no political background and that Qalibaf had done nothing but to offend rivals.

Interestingly, during the first televised debate, Qalibaf had criticized Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri over the nature of his campaign as ‘cover candidate’ for President Rouhani. The video of his remarks circulated widely on Monday, mocking the irony of fate for the former brigadier general.

Principlist media reported on Monday that Qalibaf will attend Ebrahim Raisi’s campaign gathering in Tehran’s Musalla Center. Speculations abound about Qalibaf’s political future, particularly knowing that his chances to continue serving as Tehran’s mayor are low with a Reformist list poised to win the upcoming Tehran City Council elections. Some observers have suggested he will be given the prominent position of Ebrahim Raisi’s Vice President in case the cleric wins the presidential election; but with sworn enemies from Paydari Front in Raisi’s team, this might be a fantasy for Qalibaf.