Tehran- Iranians voted in fiercely-contested presidential polls on Friday, standing in long lines to choose between Hassan Rouhani, the incumbent who wants normal ties with the West, and a populist challenger backed by conservative clergy.
“Everyone should vote in this important election … The country’s fate is determined by the people,” Supreme Leader Ayatollah Sayed Ali Khamenei said, casting his ballot in downtown Tehran as lengthy queues formed across the country of 80 million.
Long lines had already formed at polling stations around the country. Rouhani, a 68-year-old British educated cleric, has sought to frame the election as a choice between greater civil liberties and “extremism”.
He has pushed the boundaries over the past fortnight, criticising the detention of reformist leaders and activists, and calling on security agencies not to interfere in the vote.
Raisi says he will stick by the 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, that saw curbs to Iran’s atomic programme in exchange for sanctions relief, but he points to the continued economic slump as proof that Rouhani’s diplomatic efforts have failed.
“One wrong decision by the president can mean war and a correct decision can mean peace,” Rouhani told an election rally in Mashhad, his opponents home town. The election comes at a tense moment in US-Iran relations.
Trump administration has launched a 90-day review of the accord that could see it abandoned, and is visiting Iran’s bitter regional rival Saudi Arabia this weekend.
“I am on my way to vote for Rouhani. I like his detente policy with the world. I know he is not a reformist but who cares. What matters is that he is not Raisi,” said government employee Yousef Ghaemi, 43, from western city of Kermanshah.
“I cast my vote already – I voted for Raisi because he will protect our Islamic identity,” said Mehran Fardoust,36, a shop keeper near the Imam Reza Shrine, in the holy city of Mashhad.
The poll campaign was replete with caustic televised debates and bruising broadsides. Raisi accused Rouhani of “economic elitism, mismanagement, yielding to Western pressure, and corruption”.
Rouhani hit back in a sharper campaign strategy to mobilize Iranian women and young people who became jaded about the vote after losing hope in his ability to ease harsher laws in society as promised in 2013, when he won by a landslide.
State television showed lengthy queues forming outside polling stations in several cities and said 56 million Iranians out of the more than 80-million-strong population were eligible to vote.
In the Islamic Republic, the Supreme Leader, which is the highest authority in the country, is appointed by the Assembly of Experts, an 88-member body, which also oversees the leaders work. The Assembly, itself, has its members elected by the people.
“For me, Mr Rouhani’s dialogue with the world and moderation in society are very important,” said Zahra, a 32-year-old PhD student in food science.
Under former hardline president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, “the sanctions really hurt us. It was hard to get lab equipment and very difficult to get visas to study abroad. Now my colleagues can travel to France and the US,” she said.
Despite the global implications, it is the economy that has dominated the campaign. Rouhani has brought inflation down from around 40 percent when he took over in 2013, but prices are still rising by nine percent a year.
Oil sales have rebounded since the nuclear deal took effect in January 2016, but growth in the rest of the economy has been limited, leaving unemployment at 12.5 percent overall, and almost 30 percent for young people.
Rouhani has vowed to work towards the removal of remaining US sanctions that are stifling trade and investment deals with Europe and Asia, but he is unlikely to receive much assistance from Trump.
Raisi has instead promised to triple cash hand-outs to the poor, hoping to pick up voters that once supported Ahmadinejad.
Having proved too independent for the conservative establishment, Ahmadinejad was dramatically barred from standing by the Guardian Council last month as it disqualified all but six of the 1,636 people who signed up for the election.
The presidential race has since narrowed to a two-horse race as other candidates either pulled out or called on their supporters to back Rouhani or Raisi.
Two other candidates are still technically standing — conservative Mostafa Mirsalim and reformist Mostafa Hashemitaba — though they are not expected to win more than a few percent of the vote.
Iranians are also voting for their local councils, with reformists particularly hoping to undo the conservatives’ narrow majority in Tehran.
EU to Closely Watch Irans Elections: Mogherini
European Union Foreign Policy Chief Federica Mogherini said the bloc will closely follow all stages of Irans elections.
We look at the elections in Iran very closely because it’s an important player in the region, not only in the Middle but also in Asia, Mogherini said on Thursday.
I would never comment on possible results, she added, noting that Iran and the EU have had close cooperation in different fields, particularly in the implementation of the 2015 nuclear agreement, also known the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), between Tehran and world powers.
Iran is simultaneously holding the 12th presidential election, the 5th City and Village Councils elections, and the Parliaments midterm election.
Polling stations across Iran opened on Friday morning for the elections. 63,429 polling stations across Iran opened at 8 am local time on Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazlis order. Around 14,000 mobile ballot boxes have been also prepared for inaccessible and rural areas.
There are four candidates seeking presidency in the polls, including incumbent President Hassan Rouhani, Ebrahim Raisi, Mostafa Hashemitaba, and Mostafa Aqa-Mirsalim.
A run-off would be held a week later if none of the candidates wins a majority, which is at least 50 percent plus one vote
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