Iranians headed to the polls today to elect a replacement for President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, with the winner set to inherit an economy crippled by inflation and falling oil exports.
Voters want the next president to secure the lifting of sanctions imposed to halt Iran’s nuclear program, according to opinion polls. Israel has threatened military action to ensure the Islamic republic doesn’t obtain nuclear weapons should diplomacy fail, and the U.S. has also signaled it’s ready to use force.
“The biggest change in the context for whomever succeeds Ahmadinejad is the dramatic intensification in Iran’s international isolation over the course of the past four years,” said Suzanne Maloney, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy. “Iran’s next president will be poised to make or break the future of the Islamic Republic.”
Amid domestic difficulties and diplomatic tensions, 73-year old Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei had signaled he wanted a low-key contest among loyalists. In the final days of campaigning there were signs that a surge by reformist candidate Hassan Rohani may change the dynamics of the race, galvanizing some of the momentum for change that swept the country four years ago.
After that election, hundreds of thousands of protesters took to the streets to challenge the legitimacy of Ahmadinejad’s re-election over a reformist candidate. The demonstrations were crushed with dozens of people killed and thousands detained.
Voting ended across the country amid high participation, according to the Interior Ministry. Ballots opened at 8 a.m. local time and were extended until 11 p.m. Results “will be announced with more attention and transparency than previous times, and faster as well,” said Interior Minister Mostafa Mohammad-Najjar without giving details, according to the state-run Fars news agency.
Khamenei cast his ballot earlier today in Tehran. “I chose one person among these gentlemen and haven’t told anyone” who it was, he said in comments shown on state television.
The supreme leader also referred to U.S. criticism of the voting procedures. “To hell with those who don’t recognize Iran’s election,” he said. “If Iranians were waiting for what you approve and what you like, they would be lagging behind now.”
Last month, Iran’s Guardian Council, the election watchdog that vets candidates, eliminated former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, narrowing the field of 686 hopefuls to eight candidates of a similar hue. Two have since dropped out. More restrictive television debate formats reinforced the message that this year’s election was to be less divisive than 2009.
Instead, there are signs of a real race. Two former presidents, Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami, joined forces to back Rohani, 64, a former nuclear negotiator during Khatami’s time in office. Two opinion polls have showed Rohani in a tie with the conservative candidate Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf, the mayor of Tehran.
The Mehr public opinion survey center in Tehran says Qalibaf, a former Revolutionary Guards air force commander, is the front-runner with 17.8 percent support, with Rohani next on 14.6 percent.
Another organization, U.S.-based IPOS (Information and Public Opinion Solution), which is polling people in Iran by telephone, reports that Rohani’s rating has climbed to 38 percent from 14.6 percent in the past three days, while Qalibaf is at 24.6 percent. IPOS is a private group headed by Iranian sociologist and pollster Hossein Ghazian.
Iran’s current chief nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili, who is perceived to be Khamenei’s preferred candidate, is trailing in both polls. So is Ali Akbar Velayati, a former foreign minister and now a senior adviser to the supreme leader.
If no candidate wins 50 percent of votes there will be a run-off between the leading two, though that has only happened once in recent elections, when Ahmadinejad first won in 2005.
Rohani has become the default reform candidate, having worked with both Rafsanjani and Khatami, regarded as the leader of the movement. Both ex-presidents are known to favor engagement with the West and have expressed sympathy with the 2009 opposition, known as the Green Movement.
Conservatives connected to Khamenei control nearly every major political institution in Iran and they are unlikely to allow reformists to win the presidency, said Karim Sadjadpour, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.
“Iranian presidential elections are notoriously unfree, unfair, and unpredictable,” said Sadjadpour. “The big question mark is, whose vote will prove more decisive, that of the people or that of the Supreme Leader?”
While all candidates have backed Iran’s right to a civilian nuclear program, Rohani and others say technological progress shouldn’t come at the expense of public wellbeing. That has been eroded by the sanctions squeezing the economy.
Inflation in April was 32 percent, and a quarter of all Iranians aged 15 to 29 were unemployed in the last Iranian year ending March 20, according to official figures. Oil exports declined 40 percent in 2012 to 1.5 million barrels a day and production is at the lowest level since the 1980s. The Iranian rial, which lost half its value last year, is being targeted by the U.S. under a new round of sanctions authorized by President Barack Obama and set to enter force.
“The economy has been experiencing a negative growth rate for over a year, with Iran being continuously pushed further and further from the international financial institutions,” said Nader Entessar, a professor of political science at the University of South Alabama.
The new president will have to engage with the West if he wants to reverse the slide, because “the Iranian economy cannot change without being part of the global community,” Entessar said.
Khamenei, the final decision-maker on affairs of state, shows few signs of accepting that argument. This week he has urged Iranians to vote en mass to demonstrate their support for the Islamic Republic and resistance against U.S.-led pressure. A “powerful presence” at the ballot box “will make the enemy desperate and cause it to ease its pressure and follow an alternative path,” he said.
To win, Rohani, who has spoken in favor of increased freedoms and negotiating with the West, may need to convinced disillusioned voters. He’s urging his supporters, who include many young, middle-class urban Iranians, to overcome their frustration and turn up at the ballot box.
Many Iranians have expressed skepticism that the election can bring any changes.
“I won’t vote for anybody,” said Reza Torbati, 30, a gift shop owner in the holy city of Qom. “Because candidates just make promises and they soon forget about what they said, when they become president.”
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