Hardliner Ebrahim Raisi looks poised to become Iran's next president after Friday's elections amid surging coronavirus cases and voter apathy in a devastated economy.
According to a partial vote count, Raisi's lead over the three other candidates is virtually unassailable and he has already been congratulated by other contestants. Raisi, currently Iran's top judge, has ultra-conservative views and has been linked to past executions of political prisoners.
Nevertheless, while the president has significant influence over domestic policy and foreign affairs, it is Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei who has the final say on all state matters.
The 60-year-old cleric has served as a prosecutor for most of his career. He was appointed head of the judiciary in 2019, two years after he lost by a landslide to Rouhani in the last presidential election.
The sole moderate candidate conceded his loss early Saturday. Former Central Bank chief Abdolnasser Hemmati and former Revolutionary Guard commander Mohsen Rezaei have already offered their congratulations to Raisi.
In initial results, Raisi won 17.8 million votes, to Rezaei's 3.3 million and Hemmati's 2.4 million, said Jamal Orf, the head of Iran's Interior Ministry election headquarters. The race's fourth candidate, Amirhossein Ghazizadeh Hashemi, had around 1 million votes, Orf said.
Many Iranians and human rights activists have expressed concern over his role in the mass executions of political prisoners in the 1980s, it was reported.
The quick concessions, while not unusual in Iran's previous elections, signaled what semiofficial news agencies inside Iran had been hinting at for hours: That the carefully controlled vote had been a blowout win for Raisi amid calls by some for a boycott.
As night fell Friday, turnout appeared far lower than in Iran's last presidential election in 2017. The balloting came to a close at 2.a.m. Saturday, after the government extended voting to accommodate what it called crowding at several polling places nationwide. Paper ballots, stuffed into large plastic boxes, were to be counted by hand through the night.
Iranian state television sought to downplay the turnout, pointing to the Gulf Arab sheikhdoms surrounding it ruled by hereditary leaders and the lower participation in western democracies. After a day of amplifying officials' attempts to get out the vote, state TV broadcast scenes of jam-packed voting booths in several provinces overnight, seeking to portray a last-minute rush to the polls.
But since the 1979 revolution overthrew the shah, Iran's theocracy has cited voter turnout as a sign of its legitimacy, beginning with its first referendum that won 98.2% support that simply asked whether or not people wanted an Islamic Republic.
The disqualifications affected reformists and those backing Rouhani, whose administration both reached the 2015 nuclear deal with world powers and saw it disintegrate three years later with then-President Donald Trump's unilateral withdrawal of America from the accord. Former hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, also blocked from running, said on social media he'd boycott the vote.
If elected, Raisi would be the first serving Iranian president sanctioned by the U.S. government even before entering office over his involvement in the mass execution of political prisoners in 1988, as well as his time as the head of Iran's internationally criticized judiciary — one of the world's top executioners.
It also would put hard-liners firmly in control across the government as negotiations in Vienna continue to try to save a tattered deal meant to limit Iran's nuclear program at a time when Tehran is enriching uranium at its highest levels ever, though it still remains short of weapons. Tensions remain high with both the US and Israel, which is believed to have carried out a series of attacks targeting Iranian nuclear sites as well as assassinating the scientist who created its military atomic program decades earlier.
Whoever wins will likely serve two four-year terms and thus could be at the helm at what could be one of the most crucial moments for the country in decades — the death of the 82-year-old Khamenei. Speculation already has begun that Raisi might be a contender for the position, along with Khamenei's son, Mojtaba.
It is believed in western circles that under Raisi, Iran's hardliners would seek to establish a puritanical system of Islamic government, meaning more controls on social activities, fewer freedoms and jobs for women, and tighter control of social media and the press.
Hence why many expressed their despair by deserting the polls, according to western analysts. Participation from the early hours of the day seemed limited, both in the north and south of the capital. A confirmation of the strong abstention expected by the polls, which should guarantee the success of Raisi, since in the last 20 years a low turnout has always favored the conservatives.
Most Reform or Moderate voters chose not to brave the scorching heat to go to the polls. The few who did so voted for Hemmati, the only moderate left in contention after the Guardian Council's candidacies were blocked against the main exponents of this group.
Many believe that in this way they wanted to pave the way for Raisi to achieve a sure victory, an election that would respond to the plan to further narrow the circle of power around the 82-year-old Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
In a context of growing inflation, analysts foresee that it will be difficult for Raisi, once elected, to radically change course from outgoing President Hassan Rohani, abandoning the ongoing negotiations in Vienna to bring America back to the 2015 nuclear deal. and thus lift the sanctions imposed in 2018 by then-President Donald Trump when he abandoned the agreement.
Analysts said much of Iran's electorate appeared disenchanted with their Islamist rulers for mismanaging an economy ravaged by US sanctions, a prolonged pandemic and official corruption.
Iranian state-approved pollsters had predicted before the election that the turnout percentage could end up in the low 40s, which would mark a record low for a presidential election since Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution, in which its ruling Shiite clerics seized power from a collapsing monarchy. The previous low turnout was 50% in 1993.
Iran's Guardian Council, the constitutional watchdog tasked with approving candidates, allowed only Raisi and six other, lesser-known Khamenei loyalists to run in the election, barring hundreds of other presidential hopefuls, including several politicians who have prominent public profiles comparable to Raisi's.
Three of the seven approved presidential candidates withdrew from the contest on Wednesday, two of them ultraconservatives like Raisi and one a relative moderate. The narrowed field made Friday’s election a contest between Raisi, two other ultraconservatives and Hemmati.
If none of them wins an outright majority, a runoff election would be held one week later.
The next Iranian president, who can serve a maximum of two four-year terms, also could be a contender to replace Khamenei, 82. Khamenei served as Iranian president himself before being appointed supreme leader in 1989.
Khamenei if believed to hope Raisi will help clean up some of the systemic corruption in Iran's power structures.