TEHRAN: Millions of Iranians queued up to vote on Friday, showing strong turnout in an unexpectedly tight election pitting President Hassan Rouhani, who wants to normalise ties with the West, against a hardline judge who says he has already gone too far.
Voting was extended by at least five hours to 11pm (18:30 GMT) because many people were still waiting in line, state television reported. Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani-Fazli said that by law, voting could not be extended beyond midnight.
Rouhani, 68, who swept into office four years ago promising to open Iran to the world and give its citizens more freedom at home, faces an unexpectedly strong challenge from hardliner Ebrahim Raisi, a protege of supreme leader Ali Khamenei.
The election is important “for Iran’s future role in the region and the world”, Rouhani, who struck a deal with world powers two years ago to curb Iran’s nuclear programme in return for the lifting of most economic sanctions, said after voting.
The initial signs of strong turnout could be good news for Rouhani, whose backers have long said their biggest worry was apathy among reformist-leaning voters disappointed with the slow pace of change.
Raisi has blamed Rouhani for mismanaging the economy and has travelled to poor areas holding rallies, pledging more welfare benefits and jobs.
He is believed to have the backing of the powerful Revolutionary Guards security force, as well as the tacit support of Khamenei, whose powers outrank those of the elected president but who normally steers clear of day-to-day politics.
“I respect the outcome of the vote of the people and the result will be respected by me and all the people,” Raisi said after voting, according to the semi-official Fars news agency.
In the last election, Rouhani won more than three times as many votes as his closest challenger. But this time the outcome might be much closer, as other conservative rivals have backed out and thrown their support behind Raisi.
The Revolutionary Guards and other hardliners hope that a win for Raisi, 56, will give them an opportunity to safeguard economic and political power they see as jeopardised by the lifting of sanctions and opening to foreign investment.
During weeks of campaigning the two main candidates exchanged accusations of graft and brutality in unprecedentedly hostile television debates. Both deny the other’s accusations.
Some 350,000 members of the security forces were deployed around the country to protect the election, state television reported. The Interior Ministry said at mid-day that it had no reports of electoral offences so far, state television reported.
Rouhani has urged the Revolutionary Guards not to meddle in the vote, a warning that reflects the political tension. Suspicions that the Guards and the Basij militia under their control falsified voting results in favour of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad led to eight months of nationwide protests in 2009, which were violently suppressed. For ordinary Iranians, the election presents a stark choice between competing visions of the country.
Rouhani, known for decades as a mild-mannered establishment insider rather than a gung-ho reformer, has taken on the mantle of the reform camp in recent weeks, with fiery campaign speeches that attacked the human rights records of his opponents.
“I voted for Rouhani to prevent Raisi’s victory. I don’t want a hardliner to be my president,” said Ziba Ghomeyshi in Tehran. “I waited in the line for five hours to cast my vote.”
Many pro-reform voters are still lukewarm Rouhani supporters, disappointed with his failure to make broader changes during his first term. But they are anxious to keep out Raisi, who they see as representing the security state at its most fearsome: in the 1980s he was one of four judges who sentenced thousands of political prisoners to death.
“I am on my way to vote for Rouhani. I like his detente policy with the world. I know he is not a reformist, but who cares? What matters is that he is not Raisi,” government employee Yousef Ghaemi, 43, said by phone in the western city of Kermanshah.