Rouhani faces hard­line chal­lenge in Iran elec­tion

Raisi vic­tory in close race would see re­turn to more con­ser­va­tive Is­lamic val­ues


At a huge rally at Tehran’s largest mosque, sup­port­ers of hard­line pres­i­den­tial can­di­date Ebrahim Raisi chanted ‘Rouhani, bye bye’ as they de­clared their de­ter­mi­na­tion to oust Iran’s prag­ma­tist in­cum­bent in to­day’s elec­tion. Un­of­fi­cial opin­ion polls sug­gest Has­san Rouhani, who over­saw Tehran’s nuclear agree­ment with the US and five other pow­ers, will fend off Mr Raisi’s chal­lenge. But some ob­servers pre­dict a tight con­test.

By the time Ebrahim Raisi, the hard­line can­di­date con­test­ing Iran’s pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, ad­dressed sup­port­ers packed into a swel­ter­ing mosque, they had been whipped up into a frenzy. “When the week is done, Rouhani is gone,” thou­sands of peo­ple shouted be­neath a sea of Ira­nian flags. “Rouhani, bye bye.”

They were re­fer­ring to Has­san Rouhani, the prag­ma­tist pres­i­dent, whom Mr Raisi, a se­nior cleric and former prose­cu­tor-gen­eral, is seek­ing to oust at to­day’s vote.

The huge rally at Tehran’s largest mosque com­plex this week was a mus­cu­lar show of force by hard­lin­ers des­per­ate to re­gain the pres­i­dency. For re­form­ers, the large crowds and threat­en­ing tone un­der­lined the high stakes in a race that is al­ready deep­en­ing the schisms in so­ci­ety and the po­lit­i­cal es­tab­lish­ment.

Un­of­fi­cial opin­ion polls sug­gest Mr Raisi trails the in­cum­bent, but a regime in­sider pre­dicted it could be a tight con­test. The outcome is likely to de­ter­mine the pace of the Is­lamic repub­lic’s ten­ta­tive open­ing up to the world, two years after Tehran signed a nuclear agree­ment with the US and five other pow­ers.

For Rouhani sup­port­ers yearn­ing for re­forms it is also a test of whether the eas­ing of so­cial and po­lit­i­cal re­stric­tions can continue. In the hard­line camp, vic­tory would pro­vide the chance to re­turn to more con­ser­va­tive Is­lamic val­ues and pop­ulist eco­nomic poli­cies.

At Mr Raisi’s rally, women — al­most all of whom were dressed in tra­di­tional black dress — were seg­re­gated. Flags of Hizbol­lah, the mil­i­tant Le­banese group, flew among the crowd. The rally ended with chants of “Death to Amer­ica”. The con­trast with Mr Rouhani’s ral­lies, mostly held in sports sta­di­ums where fash­ion­ably dressed women min­gled freely with men, was stark.

The chal­lenge for both can­di­dates is con­vinc­ing dis­af­fected Ira­ni­ans from their core con­stituen­cies to vote: the ur­ban mid­dle and up­per classes for Mr Rouhani; the pi­ous and poor for Mr Raisi. Roghayeh, a shop as­sis­tant, who dropped out of univer­sity be­cause her fam­ily could not af­ford the fees, fits the pro­file of a typ­i­cal Raisi sup­porter. But the con­ser­va­tively dressed 24-year-old also doubts the elec­tion will make any dif­fer­ence. “We have no hope in the fu­ture,” Roghayeh says. “Iran is like an old tree that has rot­ted from within.”

Ay­a­tol­lah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader, on Wed­nes­day urged Ira­ni­ans to vote, say­ing the higher the turnout the “more dig­nity and re­spect” Iran will have in the eyes of the world.

The elec­tion comes as the Is­lamic repub­lic faces scru­tiny ahead of US pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s visit to Is­rael and Saudi Ara­bia, Iran’s regional ri­val, next week. Ira­nian lead­ers re­gard a high turnout as a show of pop­u­lar sup­port for the Is­lamic repub­lic and use it to le­git­imise the regime.

Voter dis­il­lu­sion­ment, tra­di­tion­ally a phe­nom­e­non among af­flu­ent Ira­ni­ans who have given up hope of so­cial and po­lit­i­cal change, is also rife among poorer Ira­ni­ans.

After a re­ces­sion, trig­gered by the pop­ulist poli­cies of former pres­i­dent Mah­moud Ah­madi-Ne­jad and the tight­en­ing of sanc­tions, the work­ing class has be­come dis­en­chanted. Growth has re­bounded since the nuclear deal came into ef­fect as oil ex­ports dou­bled after many sanc­tions were lifted. In­fla­tion has also fallen from more than 40 per cent four years ago to 9.5 per cent. But the of­fi­cial youth un­em­ploy­ment rate is 26 per cent, while the In­ter­na­tional Mone­tary Fund says per capita in­comes are un­changed from a decade ago and poverty is ris­ing.

As a re­sult, the economy has be­come a key is­sue in the cam­paign. Mr Raisi wants to triple state ben­e­fits. Mr Rouhani, the ar­chi­tect of the atomic ac­cord, could cap­i­talise on fears that a vic­tory for Mr Raisi, who has sur­rounded him­self with the former pres­i­dent’s al­lies, would mean a re­turn to the eco­nomic

‘We have no hope in the fu­ture. Iran is like an old tree that has rot­ted from within’ Roghayeh, a 24-year-old Raisi sup­porter

chaos that char­ac­terised Mr Ah­madiNe­jad’s rule.

“Ah­madi- Ne­jad left a mess and handed out cash to ev­ery­body,” says Has­san Avareshi, 72, clean­ing let­tuces on the street. “If they [regime hard­lin­ers] al­low him [Rouhani] to do his job he can do great things.”

The fear factor could mo­bilise mid­dle-class vot­ers, many of whom say the elec­tion is a choice be­tween “bad and worse”. No mat­ter who wins, Shervin, who owns a fash­ion store in Tehran, doubts much will change.

The ul­ti­mate de­ci­sion maker is Mr Khamenei. The Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Guards, the ju­di­ciary and con­ser­va­tive clergy — all of which are thought to sup­port Mr Raisi — also wield sig­nif­i­cant power.

But Shervin says he will be vot­ing to­day. “The vote is the only way we have to protest against the regime,” he says. “If we elect Rouhani, it shows the regime we do not want hard­lin­ers.” Ad­di­tional re­port­ing by Mon­avar Kha­laj


Flower power: a sup­porter of pres­i­den­tial can­di­date Ebrahim Raisi holds his cam­paign poster dur­ing a rally in Tehran on Wed­nes­day

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