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