Hardline cleric leads field as Iran set to vote in presidential election

Regime presses case of Ebrahim Raisi as voters expected to shun poll seen as illegitimate

 A supporter of Iranian ultraconservative presidential candidate Ebrahim Raisi raises his portrait during a rally in Tehran on Wednesday. Photograph:  Atta Kenare/AFP via Getty Images

A supporter of Iranian ultraconservative presidential candidate Ebrahim Raisi raises his portrait during a rally in Tehran on Wednesday. Photograph: Atta Kenare/AFP via Getty Images

 

Iranians go to the polls on Friday in their 13th regime-controlled presidential election since the Islamic Republic was established in 1979.

Ultraconservative supreme court judge Ebrahim Raisi, a mid-ranking cleric, leads the field of four after three candidates dropped out of the race. The conservative, unelected Guardian Council had whittled down the number approved to seven – five conservatives and two moderates – from nearly 600 hopefuls.

Among the excluded was Ali Larijani, ex-parliamentary speaker and moderate conservative who could have taken votes from Mr Raisi.

The clerical regime appears determined to pre-empt the result of this election. Despite previous efforts to determine voting for both president and parliament, earlier Iranian elections have been competitive, unpredictable, and resulted in victories for reformists and moderates, including outgoing president Hassan Rouhani.

Appointed by supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (82), Iran’s ultimate authority, the 12-member Guardian Council promoted the candidacy of Mr Raisi, a student and confident of the ayatollah and seen as his potential heir. A victory for Mr Raisi would give the conservatives control of all the levers of power in Iran, both elected and appointed, ahead of the selection of the leader’s successor.

Mr Raisi made his name as a hardliner while a judge during the 1988 mass trials when thousands of regime opponent were executed in the wake of the Iran-Iraq war. He has vowed to tackle corruption and, like all the candidates, has pledged to return Iran to the 2015 agreement to limit Iran’s nuclear programme in exchange for the lifting of sanctions. He could lay claim to this feat if it is accomplished in ongoing negotiations.

Mr Raisi’s main rival is former central bank governor Abdolnaser Hemmati, a little known figure who represents Mr Rouhani’s moderate, reformist camp. Although Mr Rouhani was initially celebrated as an architect of the nuclear deal, his second term has been soured by an economic crisis due to US abandonment of the deal and reimposition of punitive sanctions, as well as the pandemic.

Turn-out is expected to below 42 per cent, in contrast to the 73 per cent of voters who cast ballots in the 2017 presidential election. Determined to deny this election legitimacy, many voters have reportedly decided to boycott.

Mr Hemmati has said his main concern is voter disaffection and apathy, particularly among the young, who do not believe their votes count. They have also been alienated by harsh crackdowns on protests in 2009 over the disputed presidential poll and in 2019 over unemployment and hardship.

Mr Hemmati has been campaigning vigorously to deny Mr Raisi 50 per cent of the vote in the first round to ensure a run-off. Mr Hemmati pins his hopes on higher participation in a second round which just might, once again, favour a moderate.