Iranians voted on Friday in a presidential election that is anticipated to be won by a conservative jurist sanctioned by the United States, while many are expected to skip the polls due to economic hardship and demands for a boycott from liberals both at home and abroad.
Analysts saw the turnout as a vote on the leadership’s handling of a variety of issues, given the uncertainty surrounding Iran’s efforts to resurrect its 2015 nuclear deal with six other countries.
Following his vote in Tehran, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei urged Iranians to vote, stating, “each vote counts … come and vote and choose your president”
The favourite to succeed Hassan Rouhani, a pragmatist prevented under the constitution from serving a third four-year term, is hardline Ebrahim Raisi.
Raisi, who like his political patron Khamenei is an implacable critic of the West, is under U.S. sanctions for alleged involvement in executions of political prisoners decades ago.
“If elected, Raisi will be the first Iranian president in recent memory to have not only been sanctioned before he has taken office, but potentially sanctioned while being in office,” said analyst Jason Brodsky.
That fact could alarm Washington and liberal Iranians, analysts of Iranian politics said, especially given President Joe Biden’s sharpened focus on human rights globally.
A mid-ranking figure in the hierarchy of Iran’s Shi’ite Muslim clergy, Raisi was appointed by Khamenei to the high-profile job of judiciary chief in 2019.
A few months later, the United States imposed sanctions on him for alleged human rights violations, including the executions of political prisoners in 1980s and the suppression of unrest in 2009, events in which he played a part, according to human rights groups.
Iran has never confirmed the mass killings, and Raisi, 60, has never publicly addressed claims regarding his involvement.
Long lines were seen outside voting places in numerous cities, according to state media. There are around 59 million Iranians who are eligible to vote. The polls will shut at 1930 GMT, but they might be extended for another two hours. The findings are anticipated around Saturday lunchtime.
A Raisi victory would confirm the political downfall of moderate politicians like Rouhani, who were damaged by the United States’ decision to withdraw from the nuclear agreement and reimpose sanctions, stifling reconciliation with the West.
“Elections are important despite the problems and issues … I wish we didn’t have any of those problems since the registration day,” said Rouhani after casting his vote, a clear reference to the rejection of prominent moderate and conservative candidates from the race by a hardline election body.
Official opinion polls suggest turnout could be as low as 44%, significantly lower than in past elections.
A Raisi win would not disrupt Iran’s bid to revive the agreement and break free of tough oil and financial sanctions, Iranian officials say, with the country’s ruling clerics aware their political fortunes rely on tackling worsening economic hardship.
“Raisi’s main challenge will be the economy. Eruption of protests will be inevitable if he fails to heal the nation’s economic pain,” a government official said.
Under pressure over rising inflation and joblessness, the clerical leadership needs a high vote count to boost its legitimacy, damaged after a series of protests against poverty and political restrictions across Iran since 2017.
Raisi’s main rival is a pragmatist technocrat, former central bank governor Abdolnaser Hemmati, who says a win for any hardliner will result in yet more sanctions imposed by outside powers. Iran could hold talks with longtime arch-foe the United States if it adhered to “positive coexistence” with Iran, he said in the election campaign.
Raisi has the support of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps, a strong institution that has long fought reformist ideas, oversaw protest suppression, and employed proxy forces to enhance Iran’s regional influence.
The mid-ranking cleric says he supports Iran’s discussions with six major nations to resurrect the nuclear agreement, under which Iran promised to limit its nuclear programme in exchange for sanctions relief.
Parisa Hafezi contributed reporting, and William Maclean edited the piece.