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Iran election: polls open to chose a president – and a relatonship with the west

The Guardian logo The Guardian 19/05/2017 Emma Graham

A man registers to cast his ballot at a polling station in Tehran © Provided by Guardian News A man registers to cast his ballot at a polling station in Tehran Iranians headed to the polls on Friday to vote in a bitterly contested presidential election that is expected to set their country’s direction for a generation. The victor will influence not only Iran’s immediate future, but the looming battle to choose a new supreme leader.

The two main candidates are both clerics, but have little else in common. Incumbent Hassan Rouhani, 68, is a moderate who opened his country to the world and relaxed controls on Iranian society, his four years in power defined by the landmark nuclear deal he secured against the odds.

He faces hardliner Ebrahim Raisi, 56, whose black turban signifies that he claims descent from the prophet Muhammad, and who has spent much of his career as a relatively obscure prosecutor and judicial official.

Uncharismatic and virtually unknown at the start of the campaign, the younger challenger has built a populist, isolationist and religiously conservative coalition that has transformed him into a serious threat to Rouhani, whose legacy he wants to unpick.

In Iran’s unwieldy hybrid of democracy and theocracy, elections do not deliver ultimate control of the country, but neither are they the empty propaganda charades put on by countries such as North Korea. The president has considerable influence, even though he is always constrained by the supreme leader, and a range of unelected military and religious bodies respond only to him.

If Raisi wins, it would almost certainly bring Iran’s engagement with the west to an abrupt halt, and ultimately doom the 2015 nuclear agreement – even though the enduring popularity of the deal means he did not directly attack it during a bitter campaign.

It could also set the hardliner up to become Iran’s next supreme leader, only the third man to rule the country since the 1979 revolution. The leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is in his late 70s and battling health problems, and Raisi is on an unofficial list of candidates to succeed him. Victory in a presidential election would consolidate his position, by adding to his resume a job that Khamenei also held, along with a sense of legitimacy delivered by a public mandate.

“Everyone should vote in this important election ... vote at early hours,” the Supreme Leader said after casting his vote in the capital Tehran today.

“The country’s fate is determined by the people.”

Khamenei has not directly intervened in the campaign but oblique comments have been taken as a sign he favours Raisi, a fellow hardliner.

Iran has 56 million eligible voters, and polling stations will stay open past their official closing time of 6pm if any voters are still waiting in line. Counting starts as soon as polls close, with the first partial results expected to come through in the early hours of Saturday, although the final tally will not be announced until much later.

Rouhani has run an increasingly outspoken campaign, attacking hardliners in an apparent bid to stir up urban moderates who are at the heart of his support to come out and vote. In Iran reform-minded candidates tend to suffer when there is low turnout, and Rouhani got his 2013 mandate on the back of a turnout of over 70%.

If he can secure a second term – and all his four predecessors have served two consecutive terms – he will have to focus on coming good on economic promises made four years ago but only partially achieved.

He did stabilise an economy that had been shrinking fast under his predecessor, and tamed rampant inflation. But after his nuclear deal failed to spark the hoped-for flood of foreign investment, growth is still feeble and more than one in four young Iranians are out of work.

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