Iran election: huge turnout in presidential poll after bitter contest

Winner will influence not only Iran’s immediate future but also the looming battle to choose a new supreme leader

Millions of Iranians have voted in a bitterly contested presidential election that has pitted hardliners against reformers and is expected to set the country’s direction for a generation.

The official announcement of the results was delayed on Saturday due to a high turnout, but the victor will influence not only Iran’s immediate future but also the looming battle to choose a new supreme leader, who will rule for life.

The two main candidates are both clerics, but have little else in common. The incumbent, Hassan Rouhani, 68, is a moderate who opened his country to the world and relaxed controls on Iranian society, his four years in power defined by the landmark nuclear deal he secured against the odds.

Supporters determined to hold on to those changes flocked to voting stations across more liberal areas of the capital, Tehran, where hundreds welcomed their reformist political heroes with a frenzy saved for film or rock stars in other countries.

A sea of smartphones and chants of “We love you” greeted politicians and turbaned clerics throughout the morning, as they cast votes in a memorial hall favoured by prominent reformers.

“I have been waiting here since 7.30,” said Mahsa Behzad, 28, determined to both vote and see her idols. “We don’t want the past to repeat.”

If Rouhani does lose, it would be an historic upset, as all previous presidents since Ayatollah Ali Khamenei became supreme leader in 1989 have been returned to office for a second term.

His main challenger, former prosecutor and judicial official Ebrahim Raisi, whose black turban signifies that he claims descent from the prophet Muhammad, was initially written off as uncharismatic and virtually unknown.

But the 56-year-old has built a populist, isolationist and religiously conservative coalition that has transformed him into a serious threat to Rouhani, whose legacy he has attacked and promised to unpick.

A voter casts her ballot at a polling station in Tehran
A voter casts her ballot at a polling station in Tehran. Photograph: Xinhua/Rex/Shutterstock

He appeals to voters frustrated by a weak economy and unemployment running at over a quarter among young people, and those who feel the small freedoms Rouhani has allowed undermine Islam.

“Raisi tackles capitalism and injustice. Don’t you get bothered or upset when someone in your country gets extremely rich, and others are very poor?” said Najemah Farahani, a 37-year-old housewife voting in Tehran’s less wealthy south, which is dominated by conservatives.

Raisi offered Iran a future more in line with the values of the country’s ultimate ruler, the hardliner Khamenei, she added. “We love our supreme leader, and we love our religion.”

In Iran’s unwieldy hybrid of democracy and theocracy, these votes do not deliver ultimate control of the country, but neither are they the empty propaganda charades put on by countries such as North Korea.

The president has considerable influence – even though he is always constrained by the supreme leader, who has control of a range of unelected military and religious bodies.

If Raisi wins, it would almost certainly bring to an abrupt halt Iran’s engagement with the west, and ultimately doom the 2015 nuclear agreement – even though the enduring popularity of the deal means he did not directly attack it during the bitter campaign.

It could also set him up to become Iran’s next supreme leader, only the third man to rule the country since the 1979 revolution. Khamenei is now in his late 70s and battling health problems, and Raisi is on an unofficial list of candidates to succeed him.

A term as president would add to his resumé a job that Khamenei also held, along with a sense of legitimacy delivered by a public mandate.

Khamenei kicked off the poll at 8am, casting his own ballot in a polling station set up in the heart of his leadership compound and then urging 56 million Iranians eligible to vote to cast their ballots as soon as possible.

The supreme leader casts his vote first thing on Friday
The supreme leader casts his vote first thing on Friday. Photograph: Xinhua/Rex/Shutterstock

“The destiny of the country is in the hands of the people,” said Khamenei, who is believed to favour Raisi but has officially stayed out of the fray. “People should go to the polling stations as early as possible.”

That call to vote was echoed by leaders across the political spectrum, although high turnout tends to benefit reformist candidates in Iran.

Rouhani got his 2013 mandate on the back of a turnout of over 70%, and one of the biggest fears of his campaign this year was that voters disappointed by his failure to rekindle strong economic growth would stay at home, particularly after Raisi picked up momentum.

“People are worried, that’s why they are gathering here,” said Mohammad Ali Abtahi, a prominent reformer and former presidential chief of staff, who was mobbed for selfies by reformist voters after he emerged from the polling station. “These worries are a main reason for casting a vote.”

Casting a shadow over largely smooth overseas polling for Iranians living and working abroad was news from Thailand, where police said an Iranian man set himself on fire in front of the embassy in Bangkok to protest against the poll.

He suffered burns all over his body and was taken to hospital, but it was not clear what exactly he was protesting against, police told Reuters news agency.

Voting was extended by five hours to 11pm on Friday evening, with counting expected to start at midnight, and the first partial results due not long after that. The final tally will not be announced until much later.

If Rouhani can secure a second term he will have to focus on coming good on economic promises made four years ago but only partially achieved.

He did stabilise an economy that had been shrinking fast under his predecessor, and tamed rampant inflation. But after his nuclear deal failed to spark the hoped-for flood of foreign investment, growth is still feeble and more than one in four young Iranians are out of work.

“They just want to force people to go to the polls,” said greengrocer Mojtaba Salimi, who works just a few steps from a polling station but won’t be voting.

His tax bill has gone up twelvefold in the last two years, and he can barely cover rent on his shop. “We have heard a lot of lies over the past years. Nobody cares about ordinary people.”


Emma Graham-Harrison in Tehran

The GuardianTramp

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