Iranian President Hassan Rouhani looks set to claim re-election with a landslide victory, in a ringing endorsement of his efforts to re-engage with the West and offer greater freedoms at home.
With a huge turnout, polling stations stayed open until midnight in parts of the country, defying worries that moderates disillusioned by the weak economy or slow pace of change would not vote.
Preliminary results from Iran’s interior ministry suggested Rouhani would return to power with a bigger mandate than he had after his original 2013 win, driven by a boldly reformist campaign.
Iran’s interior ministry said Rouhani was ahead, with 14 million votes to his conservative rival Ebrahim Raisi’s 10 million, with over half of votes counted.
The government said over 40 million people voted, out of 56 million who were eligible. Officials plan to announce exact voter turnout later today.
“Hope prevailed over isolation,” former president and key Rouhani ally Mohammad Khatami posted on Instagram, along with a photo of Rouhani making a victory sign, Reuters reported.
The incumbent saw off a strong challenge from Raisi, a fellow cleric with radically different politics, who stirred up populist concerns about the sluggish economy, lambasted Rouhani for seeking foreign investment and appealed to religious conservatives.
He had gathered momentum as conservatives keen to win back control of the government coalesced behind Raisi’s initially lacklustre campaign.
In Iran’s unique and uneasy hybrid of democracy and theocracy, the president has significant power to shape government, although he is is ultimately constrained by the supreme leader.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, a hardliner thought to favour Raisi in the election and as a possible successor for his own job, generally steers clear of day to day politics but exerts ultimate control over Iran through control of powerful bodies from the judiciary to the revolutionary guards corp.
Despite losing the overall race, Raisi appeared to have won enough votes to preserve his political future, allowing him to campaign for office again or justify his promotion in unelected bodies.
Rouhani, who had received 18.6m votes in 2013, is projected to receive well above 20m this time. Former reformist president, Khatami, one of Iran’s most popular and influential politicians, received 20m (69.6%) in 1997.
“The election’s victor is clear, kudos to our rivals,” tweeted the editor of Mashregh News, which is believed to have strong ties with the revolutionary guards. Mashregh News was supporting Raisi in the elections. Other well-connected media personalities close to Raisi also conceded.
As news broke about Rouhani’s lead in the initial results, his campaign headquarters issued a statement saying there was no plan to hold a celebratory rally. Iranians are usually quick to celebrate such victories, mainly by honking car horns or dancing in streets or distributing sweets.
Counting started immediately after polls closed at midnight on Friday. Officials, faced with long queues of voters across the country, extended voting hours several times. There were reports of people being turned away as polling stations closed their doors at midnight. The scale of voter turnout is unprecedented in many years.
In many cities across the country, turnout was more than 70% but the overall tally has not yet been announced. In Qom, the heartland of Iranians clerics, around 78% of those eligible to vote showed up to vote, according to officials.
The governor of the northern province of Gilan was quoted as saying the turnout there was 80%. In Yazd, the home city of former reformist president, Mohammad Khatami, there was a 91% participation. Tehran’s governor, Isa Farhadi, told the semi-official Isna news agency: “So far we have counted 50% of votes cast in Tehran and more than 60% of Tehrani citizens have participated in this election.”
Fear of a Raisi presidency prompted many in Iran to vote. In Tehran, even political prisoners such as prominent human rights lawyer Narges Mohammadi, cast their votes inside the notorious Evin prison. Also voting yesterday was Iran’s eminent poet, Houshang Ebtehaj. Iran’s double Oscar-winning film director Asghar Farhadi voted in Cannes while participating at the festival.
Rouhani’s victory will be welcomed by Iranian reformists as well as the country’s opposition green movement.
Opposition leaders under house arrest, Mir Hossein Mousavi, his wife, Zahra Rahnavard, and Mehdi Karroubi, had also urged people to vote for Rouhani. The president changed his tone on the campaign trail in order to appeal to the opposition. “Ya Hossein, Mir Hossein” was a ubiquitous slogan chanted by Rouhani fans in almost every place he campaigned in the three weeks before the vote.
Results came too late to make it to Saturday frontpages in Tehran. “Celebration for our republic,” read the front page headline of the hardline Vatan-e-Emrooz newspaper