The countdown to Iran’s June 14 presidential elections has begun in earnest, with eight handpicked candidates engaged in feverish attempts to draw the majority of undecided voters into their tent.

From his exalted position, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei is also exerting himself to shape the battlefield by calling upon the contestants and the electorate not to ignore three priority areas: polling in large numbers, focusing on the economy, and offering “resistance” to external forces that wish to derail the Islamic Revolution.

“The hope of the nation and all of us is that the person elected by the nation in the June 14 votes will solve economic problems,” said the Supreme Leader during an address on Tuesday commemorating the 24th death anniversary of the Revolution’s founder, Ayatollah Khomeini. He also called for a high turnout, an apparent attempt to impart greater legitimacy to the election.

‘Resistant President’

In his recent speeches, Ayatollah Khamenei has spurred the people to elect a “resistant” President, implying that the candidate vying for the presidency must be combative in defending the fundamentals of the Revolution.

So far, Saeed Jalili, Iran’s top negotiator on the nuclear issue and head of the National Security Council, is the frontrunner; but the contest is wide open on account of the seemingly large number of undecided voters.

Nevertheless, Mr. Jalili is said to have taken a head start due to two factors: his proximity to the powerful Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) and to significant segments of the influential clergy based in Qom. Analysts say the support of the Basij — a paramilitary organisation steered by the IRGC that has millions of young activists — could give Mr. Jalili a head start. Besides, supporters of influential cleric Mohammad-Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi, who is apparently backing Mr. Jalili, could also bolster his chances.

Ayatollah Mesbah-Yazdi was once a mentor of outgoing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But Mr. Ahmadinejad displeased him and most of the clergy based in Qom when he told a senior cleric that he seemed engulfed with divine light while speaking at the U. N. General Assembly. The remark caught on video was interpreted as an expression of defiance, challenging the clergy’s central role in religious matters.

Challengers

Mr. Jalili’s fervently expressed ideological zealotry is being challenged by Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, the rather flamboyant Mayor of Tehran, who is projecting himself more as a no-nonsense technocrat rather than an old-school apparatchik. During a recent televised debate on the economy, Mr. Qalibaf — a former pilot with Iran Air — seemed to have made a positive impression with his familiarity with numbers and hands-on approach.

The reformist vote could be divided between the centrist former nuclear negotiator Hassan Rowhani and Mohammad-Reza Aref; a prospect that is triggering calls for unity between the two candidates by their supporters.

A combination of disillusionment with reformists, who succumbed to a government crackdown after the controversial 2009 presidential elections, and the focus on the economy rather than political reform, may also brighten the prospects of the conservative contenders for the presidency.

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