TEHRAN, IRAN: Iranian President Hassan Rouhani staked his political future on opening Iran ever so slightly to the outside world and overcoming hard-liners’ opposition to secure a historic nuclear deal in exchange for relief from crippling sanctions.
He’ll soon find out if voters think it’s enough to keep him in the job.
The 68-year-old Britain educated cleric, a moderate within Iran’s political system, has history on his side as Iranians vote for president Friday. No incumbent president has failed to win re-election since 1981 when Islamic Republic was established following Islamic Revolution.
Political analysts and the polling data available suggest Rouhani will come out on top among the four candidates left running, though an outright win is by no means assured. Failure to secure a majority Friday would send the two top vote-getters into a runoff a week later.
His supporters streamed into downtown Tehran streets thick with police for rallies that lasted into the early hours Thursday, just ahead of a 24-hour no-campaigning period before the vote. Wearing Rouhani’s signature purple on ribbons and loosely draped headscarves, they honked, cheered raising slogans in favour of Rouhani.
The rallies were largely peaceful even as Rouhani supporters faced off against smaller crowds supporting his main rival, Ebrahim Raisi, though police rushed reinforcements to break up Rouhani rallies that grew large enough to block traffic.
Working against Rouhani is a sense among many Iranians that the 2015 nuclear deal, which saw Iran accept limits on its atomic energy program, has failed to deliver an economic windfall.
“No matter who’s the next president, whoever comes to power should bring a better economy,” hair stylist Reza Ghavidel said.
Although nuclear-related sanctions were lifted because of the deal, other U.S. and other international sanctions remain in effect. That leaves banks and many big corporations wary of doing business with Iran.
Unemployment, meanwhile, remains stuck in the double digits, according to the International Monetary Fund.
“This election is about the economy. I don’t think most voters are thinking about the soul of the nation right now,” said Cliff Kupchan, the chairman of the Eurasia Group. “The numbers are looking better … but the voters aren’t feeling it.”
Rouhani’s stiffest challenge comes from Raisi, a law professor and former prosecutor who heads an influential religious charitable foundation with vast business holdings. He is seen by many as close to Supre Leader. Ayatollah has stopped short of endorsing anyone.
Raisi won the support of two major clerical bodies and promised to boost welfare payments to the poor. His populist posture, anti-corruption rhetoric and get-tough reputation are likely to energize conservative rural and working-class voters.
In a bid to woo younger voters, he has even turned to appearing in a viral video next to a tattooed, once-underground rapper named Amir Tataloo despite his own history of supporting the cancellation of concerts on moral grounds.
Under Iran’s system, the president is subordinate only to the supreme leader, who himself is chosen by a legal panel which in turn is elected by a popular vote. The presidency is still a powerful post, with considerable influence over domestic policy, the state bureaucracy and foreign affairs.
A victory for Rouhani could lead to a further loosening of limits on personal freedom, while Raisi win could set Iran up for a renewed bout of confrontation with the West at a time when U.S. President Donald Trump has called for a tougher line on Iran.
Trump will be in Saudi Arabia, Iran’s regional rival, as votes are tallied. He will meet with Arab leaders, who are opposed to Iran’s rising clout.
City council elections alongside the presidential vote are likely to attract more voters in the first round, and the start of the holy month of Ramadan late next week could keep voters home during a runoff, Golkar said.
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