TEHRAN – After many Iranians failed to vote in Friday’s presidential election, seeing it as rigged in favor of an ultra-conservative candidate, that candidate – outright justice chief Ebrahim Raisi – won the presidency of Iran on Saturday, paving the way for the country’s leadership to cement the conservative legacy of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Mr Raisi, 60, a cleric favored by Ayatollah Khamenei, has been seen as the possible successor to the Supreme Leader. With his election, the Ayatollah will finally have a president that is almost guaranteed not to challenge him, leaving the urban middle classes who have always supported social reforms and engagement with the outside world speechless at the top.
Mr. Raisi has a history of serious human rights violations, including charges of playing a role in the mass execution of political opponents in 1988, and is currently under US sanctions.
Yet his track record seems unlikely to hinder the resumption of negotiations between the United States and Iran on the re-establishment of a 2015 agreement to limit Iran’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs in return for the lifting of US economic sanctions. Mr Raisi said he would remain committed to the deal and do everything possible to remove the sanctions.
“With people who trust me, a great responsibility hangs on my shoulders, and I will do my best, with the help of God, the Prophet and his descendants,” Mr. Raisi said at a conference. press Saturday. “I hope I can fulfill the heavy burden of duty that weighs on my shoulders.”
The Home Office said on Saturday that Mr Raisi won with nearly 18 million of the 28.9 million votes cast in yesterday’s poll. The turnout was 48.8%, a significant drop from the last presidential election, in 2017, when the country’s moderate and liberal voters propelled the re-election of President Hassan Rouhani, a centrist pragmatist whose the administration negotiated the first nuclear deal with the United States. States.
Many of those same voters stepped out of this election, saying the campaign was designed to put Mr Raisi in power or that the vote would make little difference no matter who won, moderate or conservative. He was expected to win hands down despite late attempts by the more moderate reformist camp to consolidate support for his main candidate, Abdolnaser Hemmati, former central bank governor.
In the end, the fracture of the reformist camp and the disgust of Mr. Rouhani, who could only have seen President Donald J. Trump withdraw from the nuclear deal and reimpose sanctions in 2018, resulted in a poor performance. moderates.
The Home Office said Mr. Hemmati came third with around 2.4 million votes, after second, Mohsen Rezaee, the former commander-in-chief of Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guard Corps, which won around 3 , 4 million votes.
There were also approximately 3.7 million “blank” ballots, that is, ballots cast without a candidate’s name. Some Iranians said they handed out blank ballots to exercise their right to vote while protesting the lack of candidates who represented their point of view.
“This is the first government fully beholden to Ayatollah Khamenei,” said Ali Vaez, Iranian director of the International Crisis Group. “Khamenei has created a situation that exploits the sense of indifference and helplessness within society to usher in changes he believes are essential for his legacy.”
These changes may even include profound changes in the structure of the Islamic Republic, such as the shift from the election of a president to the appointment of a prime minister.
For his supporters, Mr. Raisi’s close identification with the supreme leader, and by extension with the Islamic Revolution which brought Iranian religious leaders to power in 1979, is part of his appeal. Campaign posters showed Mr. Raisi’s face alongside those of Mr. Khamenei and his predecessor, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, as well as Major General Qassim Suleimani, the Iranian commander whose death in a strike US air force last year caused a wave of grief and anger among Iranians.
Mr. Raisi’s supporters also cited his staunch conservative resume, his promises to fight corruption, which many Iranians blame as much for the country’s deep economic misery as the US sanctions, and what they said was its commitment to level the inequalities among Iranians.
Hundreds of Raisi voters gathered on Saturday night in Imam Hussain Square in a working-class neighborhood in eastern Tehran to celebrate the victory, waving Iranian flags as a singer and boy choir sang patriotic hymns to the crowd. Fireworks burst from the roof of a small rotunda which houses the tombstones of several Iranian martyrs; the women were screaming with joy.
“Rouhani is going, hurray, hurray,” sang a passing biker, referring to the outgoing president.
Those at the rally said they were quite happy with Mr. Raisi’s victory.
But overall, turnout was low despite exhortations from the Supreme Leader to participate and a campaign to withdraw the vote that appealed to Iranians’ patriotism and played on their fears: A banner held up an image of the General Suleimani’s bloodied severed hand, still wearing his signature dark red ring, urging Iranians to vote “for his own good.” Another showed a bombed-out street in Syria, warning that Iran risks becoming the war-torn country if voters stay at home.
Voting has been touted less as a civic duty and more as a show of faith in the Islamic revolution, in part because the government has long relied on a high turnout to bolster its legitimacy.
Although it was never a democracy in the Western sense of the term, Iran has in the past allowed candidates representing different factions and political positions to run for office in a government whose leadership and major policies were set by unelected religious leaders. During election times, the country has been buzzing with heated candidate forums, political debates and competing rallies.
But since protests erupted in 2009 over charges of rigging that year’s presidential election, authorities have gradually overstepped the limits of electoral freedom, leaving little choice this year.
Many prominent candidates were disqualified last month by the Iranian Guardian Council, which is reviewing all candidates, leaving Mr Raisi the favorite and discouraging moderates and liberals, who had – and now do – no one to unite behind.
Analysts said the Supreme Leader ‘support for Mr Raisi could give him more power to promote change than incumbent President Mr Rouhani. Mr. Rouhani ended up upsetting the Supreme Leader and disappointing voters who hoped he could open up Iran’s economy to the world by making a lasting deal with the West.
The prospects for a renewed nuclear deal may improve now that the elections are over. Mr Khamenei, who is leading the nuclear negotiations and has the final say on all important state matters, appears to be blocking the ongoing talks ahead of the elections. But US diplomats and Iranian analysts have said there could be movement in the weeks between Mr Rouhani’s departure and Mr Raisi’s rise.
However, Mr. Raisi’s conservative views could make it more difficult for the United States to reach further agreements with Iran and obtain concessions on critical issues such as the country’s missile program, its support for the United States. proxy militias around the Middle East and human rights.
Conservative Iranians who have turned to Mr Raisi, many of whom view the West with suspicion, are not necessarily against a renewed deal, given how much Iran stands to gain from ending sanctions. But, some said in interviews, they will only support the negotiations if the United States shows that it will honor its commitments, unlike last time.
If the negotiations go well, Masoud Mohamadi, 52, an electrical engineer with relatives in the United States, said he hopes to use his American contacts to secure trade deals.
“But my pride will not allow me to go there just for my own benefit,” he said during Mr. Raisi’s victory rally on Saturday. “America has already shown that it is neither reliable nor trustworthy. If they lift all sanctions first, we will come back into compliance as well. “
Farnaz Fassihi contributed reporting from New York.