Iran election: High turnout as Hassan Rouhani's followers vote to stop 'another Ahmadinejad'

‘All the gains which have been made will be lost’

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The Independent Online

Iran voted today in a landmark election in which the result will shape the country’s future at a pivotal time and have significant repercussions far beyond its borders.

A large turnout led to polling stations being kept open into the evening, and also to growing optimism from the followers of Hassan Rouhani who had been stressing that getting the vote out would mean victory for the reformist President over his hardline opponent Ebrahim Raisi.

One survey, conducted three days ago, had Mr Rouhani leading by 58 per cent to 36 per cent. But a late surge in support for Mr Raisi narrowed the margin and it was a sign of the rising tension that President Rouhani warned the powerful and influential Revolutionary Guards and the Basij militia not to manipulate the result, as they were accused of having done to put Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in power.

Months of violent protests followed the controversial installation of Mr Ahmadinejad a dozen years ago and left the country polarised and with deep divisions and grievances which continue to this day.

Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani casts his ballot during the election in Tehran (Reuters)

Mr Raisi, who is believed to have the backing of the Revolutionary Guards and the Basij, stated in the morning: “I will respect the outcome of the vote of the people and the result will be respected by me and all the people.” But there were already mutterings from his followers that the government may use dirty tricks to keep their man from the presidency.

The suspicion was echoed by Hamza Khazem, a 32-year-old carpenter, at a polling station in the Lorzadeh mosque in Tehran. “We know how big a support Raisi has,  look at the numbers at all the rallies. If they say that Rouhani has won by a big margin then it means something wrong had happened, the government is doing something secret. People will be very unhappy.” His companion, Mahmoud Fikri, added: “We know that the Western countries are backing Rouhani, their agents will try to interfere, we have had Ayatollah Khameini himself warning us this would happen.”

Iran’s Supreme Leader cast the symbolic first vote early in the morning and exhorted the public not to neglect voting. “Elections are very important and the fate of the country is now in the hands of all people,” he declared. There have been persistent reports that the Grand Ayatollah Ali Khameini is backing Mr Raisi in the election and eventually as his successor, helping to swell his support in the theocratic centres of Qom and Mashhad.

Two other conservative candidates are on the ballot paper. But the result will be decided by the voters choosing between Mr Rouhani and Mr Raisi. A choice between an incumbent seeking the mandate for sweeping changes to policies home and abroad, and his opponent who declares that liberal experiment has failed, leaving the country vulnerable to its enemies and an economy moribund.

Mr Raisi had repeatedly criticised the nuclear agreement President Rouhani signed with international powers, including Britain, under which sanctions were due to be lifted and the economy vastly boosted.

The high expectations are yet to be fulfilled, mainly due to unilateral sanctions by the US and wariness of banks to trade with Iran in case they fall foul of these punitive measures. But the conservatives have accused Mr Rouhani of putting the country in danger by sacrificing security. Mr Raisi demanded to know: “Where in the world does a government weaken its defensive potentials; missiles for preventing wars?”

But many felt that it is Mr Raisi who poses danger for Iran. He was a judge in the “death commissions” which sent thousands of political prisoners to the gallows and firing squads in the 1980s and there are many who remember those grim times.

“It was a period when anyone who questioned anything was a target, people just feared, they lived with fear,” said Hakim Pejman, a 57-year-old teacher, as he waited to vote at a polling station in Jamaran district. “Rouhani has messed up the economy, which does not inspire confidence. But if it is a choice between him and someone like Raisi... well there’s no choice, we do not want someone who was part of that dark time as the country’s leader.”

Hakim Aholfaz, 86, came to the polling station at Hassaniyeh Eshaad mosque with 69-year-old Aktai Tabakoli: “If you want to know why people as old as us want to vote, well it’s because we remember the past,” said Mr Aholfaz. “We remember Ahmadinejad. I looked at Raisi, and I thought, we cannot have another Ahmadinejad.”

Others were worried by what life might be like in the future with Mr Raisi as president. He has, among other things, criticised the Rouhani government for signing a Unesco agreement on education and equal rights for men and women. This, he declared, was contrary to Iran’s cultural values. “What does that say about this man and how he sees the culture of this country, how does he view educated women?” asked Zahra Farzhan, a 24-year-old law graduate: “All the gains which have been made will be lost.”

Alarm at the prospect of a victory by the hardliners had led to a late citizens’ campaign to get out the vote. “We had asked people who didn’t want to vote, ‘please, you must, it is so important’, and we had mostly succeeded”, said Malihe Afroozifar, a 34-year-old engineer.

“We could not let Raisi win because people couldn’t be bothered to vote. We need to defend the reforms, we need to defend the nuclear agreement, it may not have achieved everything we wanted quickly, but there has been positive effects in fields like where I work, oil and gas. We can only now hope for the right result. If that doesn’t happen? Well, many of us will think of leaving the country.”