By FARNAZ FASSIHI
Wall Street Journal
June 15, 2013.
BEIRUT—Iran’s preliminary election results show that the candidate backed by the opposition and reformist political factions, Hassan Rohani, is leading in polls by a landslide, giving a decisive victory to Iranians calling for change.
Mr. Rohani has 51.76% of the estimated 12 million counted votes, with the second runner up, Tehran Mayor Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf, scoring only 15.78%, according to official preliminary results announced by the Interior Ministry.
Mr. Rohani needs 50% plus one vote to win the presidency and if early results are an indication, the election might not go to a runoff as predicted.
Conservative candidates did poorly in vote counts so far, especially the candidates perceived to be the closest to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The current nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, ranked fourth and Ali Akbar Velayati, a former foreign minister, was fifth. Mohsen Rezaei, the former commander of the Revolutionary Guards, who made the economy his top campaign issue, ranked third. The votes for all three men are below 13% so far.
Iran analysts and media pundits say if Mr. Rohani wins with a large margin, it should serve as wake-up call for Mr. Khamenei and his circle of conservative advisers that their hard-line policies ranging from the standoff over the nuclear issue to the dire state of the economy have been rejected by the majority of the population.
“Mr. Khamenei has to understand that his policies have failed. The people came out and voiced their protest in the most civil way and hopefully they will be heard,” said Ali Mazrui, a former parliamentarian and member of the main reformist party, to BBC Persian on Saturday morning.
The government announced that 70% of the country’s estimated 50 million voters had cast ballots at 60,000 polling stations across the nation.
Overshadowing the election process for many voters were memories of the last presidential ballot in 2009, when large-scale unrest followed allegations that authorities had rigged the re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
On the eve of Iranian elections, RAND senior international policy analyst Alireza Nader discusses how the outcome could shape U.S.-Iran relations.
Mr. Khamenei was the first official to cast a ballot early on Friday morning. He said that not even his family members were aware of his preferred candidate and urged election officials to handle ballots with care and honor the public’s choice.
He also said that Washington “can go to h—” for suggesting that Iran’s elections were unfair and undemocratic.
Five candidates hailed from conservative political parties loyal to Mr. Khamenei’s hard-line positions, while only one, Mr. Rohani, had been endorsed by opposition supporters and reformist parties, which seek democratic changes.
That endorsement galvanized enough voters that polls suggested Mr. Rohani would make it to a runoff ballot against one of the conservatives. Mr. Qalibaf, a former military commander with a reputation for management skills, appeared likely to emerge at the front of the conservative ranks. Mr. Jalili was the one remaining candidate seen as most strident in defending Iran’s current policies.
Many opposition supporters considered a boycott of the election, complaining that there was no candidate representing their interests and voicing fears that the outcome would be rigged.
During the campaign, candidates offered varying views on issues important with voters such as the state of the economy, foreign policy as it relates to sanctions and nuclear negotiations, and personal and social freedoms. Most voiced harsh criticism of the status quo and pledged change if elected.
The presidential election, which occurs every four years, is a critical milestone for the Islamic Republic that offers the regime a chance to boast to the world that it maintains a legitimate political system backed by the majority of the population.
Across Iran, turnout was reported stronger than expected, but not as large as 2009 when lines snaked for several miles outside of polling stations, according to witnesses.
The candidates are all seen as close to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, casting his ballot on Friday.
In Tehran, some larger polling stations, such as Hosseinieh Ershad, where the government had a camera broadcasting live on state television were packed, while smaller polling stations in schools and mosques had no lines.
“Voter participation was much better than we anticipated but nothing like four years ago,” said Ali, an election supervisor for Mr. Rohani’s campaign who visited polling stations throughout Tehran. He declined to provide his last name.
Voter apathy appeared stronger at two opposite poles of the population: the secular affluent and the religious poor, with each saying they had little hope that the government would improve their lives. Polling stations in their neighborhoods weren’t crowded, witnesses said.
A day laborer in the industrial city of Arak said he and his family boycotted the vote this year out of frustration with the economy. He said his salary had shrunk to a third of its value with the dropping currency and rising inflation.
“I voted for Mr. Ahmadinejad in both previous elections but we only suffered more. All these years I was loyal and voted and they did nothing for us,” he said.
Many opposition supporters of the Green Movement and reformist parties had a change of heart about boycotting the vote and decided to back Mr. Rohani. Influential political figures, political prisoners and artists and musicians began rallying behind Mr. Rohani as a way to challenge hard-line conservatives and call for change.
“The government must realize that fundamentalism is over and people aren’t supporting it,” said Niloufar, a 27-year-old student from Isfahan who said she voted for Mr. Rohani.
Mr. Rohani also benefited from conservatives’ lack of unity and divided votes among five candidates. Witnesses and election supervisors who surveyed voters in conservative neighborhoods in Tehran said votes appeared to have been divided between Mr. Jalili and Mr. Rezaei.
State television ran a live broadcast of the election all day and most voters interviewed repeated government rhetoric. One young man said his vote was a “big defiance against our enemies.”
Several problems were reported that prompted concern about the fairness of the election.
Mr. Rohani’s campaign put out a statement saying the name of a reformist candidate, Mohamad Reza Aref, who withdrew last week, was still on the ballot in some polling stations, including the one where Mr. Rohani voted—suggesting an effort to dilute reformist support for Mr. Rohani. The name of a conservative candidate who withdrew, Gholam Ali Haddad Adel, wasn’t on the ballots.
The Interior Ministry said supervisors were investigating reports that pieces of paper with Mr. Jalili’s name typed on the header were being distributed to voters in some south Tehran polling station.
Mr. Rohani suffered other setbacks. His campaign website was blocked early on Friday after he called on voters who picked him to register their names and where they cast their ballot on his website. Election monitors working for Mr. Rohani’s campaign also had trouble obtaining credentials in time from the Interior Ministry, according to Iranian media.
“Elections today showed that the critics of the regime are growing in size and significance to include a much larger portion of the society because even conservatives are shouting for change,” said Ali Akbar Mousavi Khoeini, a former parliamentarian with the main reformist party who now lives in the U.S.