Iran picks new president, bids adieu to Ahmadinejad
Iranians began voted for a new president Friday in an election which will see outgoing president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad succeeded after eight fiery years in power. Six candidates remain in the race – one moderate, four conservatives and one hardliner.
Iranians cast their ballot on Friday in an election that will see an end to the eight-year reign of outgoing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who is prohibited from seeking a third consecutive term in office.
Polling was extended by an extra three hours, state television reported, attributing the decision to high voter turnout.
"On the order of the interior minister (Mostafa Mohammad Najjar), the polls will remain open until 9 pm (1630 GMT)," said a statement carried by Iranian media. It was the second time voting had been prolonged.
The ballot is the first presidential poll since a disputed 2009 contest, which led to months of unrest and a violent crackdown by government forces on pro-reform protesters, during which dozens of people were killed and thousands arrested.
Friday’s election is not expected to bring profound change in the running of the Islamic Republic, but it could bring a softening of the antagonistic style adopted by outgoing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Some 50 million Iranians chose from a slate of six candidates – four conservatives, one hardliner and one moderate – all of whom were approved to run by the Guardian Council.
Of five conservative candidates professing unwavering obedience to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, only three are thought to stand any chance of winning the vote, or making it through to the run-off in a week’s time.
Of those three main conservative hopefuls only one, current chief nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili, advocates maintaining Iran’s robust, ideologically-driven foreign policy.
The other two, Tehran mayor Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf and former foreign minister Ali Akbar Velayati, have pledged never to back away from pursuing Iran’s nuclear programme but have strongly criticised Jalili’s inflexible negotiating stance.
They face a single moderate candidate, the only cleric in the race, Hassan Rowhani. Though very much an establishment figure and suspicious of the West, Rowhani is more likely to pursue a conciliatory foreign policy.
Good riddance to Ahmadinejad?
With no independent, reliable opinion polls in Iran, it is hard to gauge the public mood, let alone the extent to which Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guards will exert their powerful influence over the ballot. Following the disputed 2009 election, telecommunications and internet – used to orchestrate the uprising – were closely surveyed and restricted by the regime.
But FRANCE 24 special correspondent Alexander Turnbull reported on Friday that despite a noticeable restriction on telecommunications and internet use in recent days, voters did not appear to feel restricted in freedom of speech concerning the election.
“The internet has been cut off here at our hotel, we don’t have access to social media and it’s becoming increasingly difficult to make phone calls to numbers outside Iran,” he said. “Everything appears to be under surveillance. But people do speak on the street freely in front of the camera about issues that might seem controversial.”
Turnbull added that voters were also openly critical of Ahmadinejad. “It was quite surprising to see at the campaign rallies we attended this week how critical people were of the outgoing president – some of them actually blame him single-handedly for bringing on the disastrous economic situation [in Iran]; for the new array of sanctions,” he said.
“People are also very angry about the isolation the country faces at the moment; many feel that the country is not going in the right direction.”
World powers in talks with Iran over its nuclear programme will be looking for signs of a recalibration in the country’s next president.
Gulf Arab neighbours are also wary of Iran’s influence in Iraq next door and its backing of President Bashar al-Assad and his Lebanese allies, Hezbollah, in the Syrian civil war. The Sunni Arab kingdoms are backing the rebels in Syria.
Voting in the capital Tehran, Khamenei called on Iranians to vote in large numbers and derided Western misgivings about the credibility of the vote.
“I recently heard that someone at the US National Security Council said ‘we do not accept this election in Iran’,” he said. “Well, we don’t give a damn.”
On May 24 US Secretary of State John Kerry called into question the credibility of the election, criticising the disqualification of candidates and accusing Tehran of disrupting Internet access.
Iran’s Guardian Council, the state body that vets all candidates, has barred a number of hopefuls from the roster in the ballot, including former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who is seen as sympathetic to reform.
Human rights groups have criticised Iran for further arrests and curbs on activists and journalists ahead of Friday’s poll and the disqualification of 678 people registered as candidates.
Reformist candidates who lost in 2009 remain under house arrest since the post-election upraising and have little contact with the outside world.
(FRANCE 24 with wires)