Iran held general elections on Friday. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei urged voters to turn out in large numbers, and they did. It appears that Hassan Rowhani, a moderate, is holding an impressive lead over the favored candidates of Khamenei. If he is declared the winner, will he change the country? Probably not.
Iran is a theocracy and Khamenei and the religious clerics make all important decisions in Iran. The president does have influence in matters of state, but the ultimate conclusions belong to the religious hierarchy.
With 17 million votes counted, Rowhani has a little over 50 percent of the tally. If the trend continues, he may avoid a two person runoff election.
Minister Mostafa Mohammad Najjar said the final results will be announced by late Saturday. Iran has 50 million eligible voters, and the turnout was very large.
The apparent strong turnout, estimated at 75 percent by the hardline newspaper Kayhan, suggested liberals and others abandoned a planned boycott as the election was transformed into a showdown across the Islamic Republic’s political divide.
Although a presidential election in Iran lacks the drama of a U.S. presidential election, it is symbolic of the country’s people and their attitudes towards the western world.
It appears that fears of a repeat of 2009 have been assuaged. Unless a last minute ballot box stuffing occurs, as it did in the previous election, there will be no rioting. Rowhani is expected to act with less belligerence towards the West than his predecessor, Ahmadinejad.
“Rowhani is not an outsider and any gains by him do not mean the system is weak or that there are serious cracks,” said Rasool Nafisi, an Iranian affairs analyst at Strayer University in Virginia. “The ruling system has made sure that no one on the ballot is going to shake things up.”
Some supporters called for the release of political prisoners including opposition leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mahdi Karroubi, both candidates in 2009 and now under house arrest. “Long live reforms,” some cried at Rowhani’s last rally. The rally was awash in purple banners and scarves, the campaign’s signature hue in a nod to the single-color identity of Mousavi’s now-crushed Green Movement.
“My mother and I both voted for Rowhani,” said Saeed Joorabchi, a university student in geography, after casting ballots at a mosque in west Tehran.
British former Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, who dealt with Rowhani during nuclear negotiations between 2003 and 2005, called him a “very experienced diplomat and politician”.
“This is a remarkable and welcome result so far and I’m keeping my fingers crossed that there will be no jiggery-pokery with the final result,” Straw told Reuters, alluding to accusations of widespread rigging in the 2009 election.
“What this huge vote of confidence in Doctor Rowhani appears to show is a hunger by the Iranian people to break away from the arid and self-defeating approach of the past and for more constructive relations with the West,” he said.
“On a personal level I found him warm and engaging. He is a strong Iranian patriot and he was tough, but fair to deal with and always on top of his brief.”
Suzanne Maloney, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said Iran “appears to be on the verge of shocking the world”.
“With Rowhani leading the vote, the regime’s calculation now is whether a run-off campaign, is worth the risk. A second round would entail an additional week of the kind of exhilarated campaigning, replete with young Iranians dancing in the streets and an amplified chorus of demands for social and political reforms, and ultimately pose a greater risk to the system.”
The Guardian Express