Iranians vote for new president with hardliner slated to win

If elected, Ebrahim Raisi would be the first serving Iranian president sanctioned by the US government even before entering office over his involvement in the mass execution of political prisoners in 1988 and other abuses.
Friday 18/06/2021
Presidential candidate Ebrahim Raisi gestures after casting his vote during presidential elections in Tehran, Iran June 18, 2021. (REUTERS)
Presidential candidate Ebrahim Raisi gestures after casting his vote during presidential elections in Tehran, Iran June 18, 2021. (REUTERS)

TEHRAN – Iranians voted Friday in a presidential election in which ultraconservative cleric Ebrahim Raisi is seen as all but certain to coast to victory after all serious rivals were barred from running.

After a lacklustre campaign, turnout was expected to plummet to a new low in a country exhausted by a punishing regime of US economic sanctions that has dashed hopes for a brighter future.

State-linked opinion polling and analysts put hard-line judiciary chief Ebrahim Raisi as the dominant front-runner in a field of just four candidates. Former Central Bank chief, Abdolnasser Hemmati, is running as the race’s moderate candidate but hasn’t inspired the same support as outgoing President Hassan Rouhani, who is unable under the constitution to seek a third consecutive term of office.

If elected, Raisi would be the first serving Iranian president sanctioned by the US government even before entering office over his involvement in the mass execution of political prisoners in 1988, as well as his time as the head of Iran’s internationally criticised judiciary, one of the world’s top executioners.

It also would firmly put hard-liners in control across the Iranian government as negotiations in Vienna continue over trying to save Tehran’s tattered nuclear deal with world powers, as it enriches uranium to the closest point yet to weapons-grade levels. Tensions remain high with both the US and Israel, which is believed to have carried out a series of attacks targeting Iranian nuclear sites and assassinating the scientist who created its military atomic programme decades earlier.

Polls opened at 7am local time for the vote, which has seen widespread public apathy after a panel under Khamenei barred hundreds of candidates, including reformists and those aligned with Rouhani. Khamenei cast the ceremonial vote from Tehran, where he urged the public to take part.

An Iranian woman casts her vote during the presidential election at a polling station inside the Iranian consulate in Karbala, Iraq, Friday, June 18, 2021. (AFP)
An Iranian woman casts her vote during the presidential election at a polling station inside the Iranian consulate in Karbala, Iraq, Friday, June 18, 2021. (AFP)

“Through the participation of the people the country and the Islamic ruling system will win great points in the international arena, but the ones who benefit first are the people themselves,” Khamenei said. “Go ahead, choose and vote.”

But by mid-day, turnout appeared far lower than Iran’s last presidential election in 2017. State television offered tight shots of polling places, several of which seemed to have only a handful of voters in the election’s early hours. Those passing by several polling places in Tehran said they similarly saw few voters.

Raisi, wearing a black turban that identifies him in Shia tradition as a direct descendant of Islam’s Prophet Muhammad, voted from a mosque in southern Tehran, waving to those gathered to cast ballots. The cleric acknowledged in comments afterward that some may be “so upset that they don’t want to vote.”

“I beg everyone, the lovely youths and all Iranian men and women speaking any accent or language from any region and with any political views, to go and vote and cast their ballots,” Raisi said.

There are more than 59 million eligible voters in Iran, a nation home to over 80 million people. However, the state-linked Iranian Student Polling Agency has estimated a turnout of just 42%, which would be the lowest ever since the country’s 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Fears about a low turnout have some warning Iran may be turning away from being an Islamic Republic, a government with elected civilian leadership overseen by a supreme leader from its Shiite clergy, to a country more tightly governed by its supreme leader. As supreme leader, Khamenei has final say on all matters of state and oversees its defense and atomic programme.

Any enthusiasm by voters has been dampened by the disqualification of many hopefuls from the race and the deep economic malaise which has sparked spiralling inflation and job losses, the crisis deepened by the COVID pandemic.

Iranian opposition groups abroad and some dissidents at home have urged a boycott of the vote they see as an engineered victory for Raisi, the 60-year-old head of the judiciary, to cement ultraconservative control.

Others queued to vote at schools, mosques and community centres, some carrying Iran’s green, white and red national flag.

— 1988 massacre —

Iran has often pointed to voter participation for democratic legitimacy but polls signal the turnout may drop below the 43 percent of last year’s parliamentary election.

Results are expected around noon (0730 GMT) Saturday. If no clear winner emerges, a runoff will be held a week later.

Election placards are relatively sparse in Tehran, dominated by those showing the austere face of frontrunner Raisi, in his trademark black turban and clerical robe, who has been named in Iranian media as a possible successor to Khamenei.

For the exiled Iranian opposition and rights groups, his name is indelibly associated with the mass executions of leftists in 1988, when he was deputy prosecutor of Tehran’s Revolutionary Court, although he has denied involvement.

The election winner will take over in August as Iran’s eighth president from Hassan Rouhani, a relative moderate who has served the maximum of two consecutive four-year-terms allowed under the constitution.

After casting his vote, Rouhani told the public that “elections are important no matter what, and despite these problems we must go and vote”. He acknowledged he would have liked to see “more people present” at the polling stations.

Ultimate political power in Iran, since its 1979 revolution toppled the US-backed monarchy, rests with the supreme leader. But the president, as the top official of the state bureaucracy, also wields significant influence in fields from industrial policy to foreign affairs.

Rouhani’s key achievement was the landmark 2015 deal with world powers under which Iran agreed to limit its nuclear programme in return for sanctions relief.

But high hopes for greater prosperity were crushed in 2018 when then-US president Donald Trump withdrew from the accord and launched an economic and diplomatic “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran.

— Heavyweights barred —

As old and new US sanctions hit Iran, trade dried up and foreign companies bolted. The economy nosedived and spiralling prices fuelled repeated bouts of social unrest which were put down by security forces.

Iran’s ultraconservative camp, which deeply distrusts the United States, labelled the “Great Satan” or the “Global Arrogance” in the Islamic republic, attacked Rouhani over the failing deal.

Despite this, there is broad agreement among all the election candidates that Iran must seek an end to the painful US sanctions in ongoing talks in Vienna.

Out of an initial field of almost 600 hopefuls for the presidency, only seven, all men, were approved to run by the Guardian Council, a body of 12 clerics and jurists.

Among those disqualified were conservative former parliament speaker Ali Larijani and populist ex-president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Then, two days before the election, three approved candidates dropped out of the race.

The only reformist still running is low-profile former central bank chief Abdolnaser Hemmati, who has promised to revive the economy but is widely blamed for the runaway inflation.

“For the first time since the foundation of the Islamic republic, the election of the president will take place without any real competition,” wrote former French ambassador Michel Duclos for Paris think-tank the Institut Montaigne.

Tehran blacksmith Abolfazl, aged in his 60s, told AFP of his disappointment as a patriot who had joined the 1979 revolution.

“I took part in a revolution to choose for myself, not so others can choose for me,” he said. “I love my country, but I do not accept these candidates.”