Rohani wins Iran presidential poll in reformist surge

Moderate cleric Hassan Rohani was declared the winner of the 2013 Iranian presidential election on Saturday with just over 50% of the vote, avoiding the need for a runoff and offering the prospect of a less pugnacious management style.


The 2013 Iranian presidential campaign trail was so lacklustre with its officially-sanctioned roster of politically indistinguishable candidates, soporific TV debates and poster-deprived rallies due to a paper-conservation advisory in the sanctions-hit country, that for a long time, a boycott seemed the only game in town.

But in the final, dying hours of a desultory election season, an extraordinary change occurred as a palpable sense of optimism seeped into the streets of towns and cities across Iran.

Away from the spotlights trained on Tehran, crowds of mostly young people packed rallies and processions, belting out the rallying refrain of “Yar-e-Dabestani” – a popular political song – on the streets of Sari, chanting the name of detained opposition leader Mir Hussein Mousavi in the eastern city of Mashhad and cheering for their candidate, Hassan Rohani.

A day after the June 14 election, the pulse of the national mood was evident in the official electoral figures. In a televised broadcast on Saturday evening, Interior Minister Mostafa Mohammad Najjar announced that Rouhani had won 18,613,329 of the 36,704,156 votes cast. This represented 50.71 percent of the vote – just over the 50 percent mark needed to avoid a runoff vote.

“This comes as quite a surprise considering the reformist camp was calling on its supporters to boycott the election only three weeks ago,” said FRANCE 24’s Alexander Turnbull, reporting from Tehran earlier Saturday.

The importance of the youth vote

The last-minute reformist surge came after moderate candidate Mohammad Reza Aref bowed out of the race earlier this week in favour of Rohani.

FRANCE 24's citizen-jounalist network The Observers has launched a Farsi-language version of its wesbite.

As reformist heavyweights, including former presidents, Mohammad Khatami and Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani – who was barred from running by a state vetting body – threw their backing behind the mild-mannered cleric, Rohani benefited from the strategic coalescing of the reformist movement.

In a country where about 70 percent of the 75-million-strong population is under 30 following official drives to encourage Iranian couples to have more children after the 1979 revolution, the youth vote has been a decisive factor in recent elections.

Four years ago, it was this demographic that dominated the “Green Movement” of Mousavi supporters who took to the streets following the contested 2009 poll, which returned now outgoing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to office.

Once again this year, the youth vote played a critical role, according to Iranian-born author and lawyer, Ardavan Amir-Aslani. “It’s not a question of Mousavi, it’s not a question of the Green Movement. The movement is the youth,” said Amir-Aslani. “They are educated, they personify Iranian civilization, they are connected to the world, they want another way of life, they want to be open to the world and they want to be back on the international scene.”

On nuclear talks, 'the diplomatic sheikh’ promises change

A fluent English-speaker and the only cleric among the six presidential candidates, Rohani is a former chief nuclear negotiator, which earned him the title “the diplomatic sheikh” in the West.

The Tehran University and Glasgow Caledonian University-educated cleric took over the nuclear portfolio in 2003 under the Khatami presidency. He served as chief negotiator for two years, during which time Iran temporarily suspended all uranium enrichment-related activities to avoid UN Security Council sanctions.

But shortly after Ahmadinejad’s 2005 presidential victory, Rohani stepped down from the post after a series of testy post-election meetings with the hardline president.

On the campaign trail, Rohani promised “a new management for the country,” one that is “not based on quarrelling” in an obvious dig at fellow candidate and current chief nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili’s uncompromising diplomatic positions.

“We won't let the past eight years be continued,'' Rowhani told a campaign rally last week, referring to Ahmadinejad's two terms in office. “They brought sanctions to the country. Yet, they are proud of it. I'll pursue a policy of reconciliation and peace. We will also reconcile with the world.''

International isolation and sanctions were among the top concerns of Rohani supporters, according to Azadeh Kian, a London-based sociologist. “Most of the Iranian electors who voted for him voted on this issue,” noted Kian. “They want Rohani to reduce tensions with the US and Europe in order to boost the Iranian economy.”

It’s the economy, stupid

There’s little doubt that the international sanctions have hurt the oil-rich Iranian economy. Over the past few years, inflation has tripled – and for some basics, even quadrupled – while unemployment rates have been steadily rising.

With the Iranian currency suffering a pummelling on the international money exchange, imported consumer goods have turned prohibitively expensive and the country’s powerful trading class – or bazaris – have increasingly voiced their anger over what they view as the Ahmadinejad government’s economic mismanagement.

In the lead-up to the June 14 vote, Tehran’s dynamic mayor, Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, was widely viewed as the most likely to benefit from the economic malaise. Since he took over from Ahmadinejad as Tehran’s mayor, the 51-year-old former police chief has introduced a number of infrastructural projects, boosting his image as a man of action.

But as the results trickled in on Saturday, Qalibaf was positioned in second spot, trailing behind Rohani with a mere 15 to 16 percent of the vote.

While most experts have welcomed the trend in the 2013 vote results, they also note that the fundamental power dynamics in the world’s largest Shiite Muslim nation are not about to change, with the unelected Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei continuing to hold the reins of power.

Following the 2009 polls, Khamenei showed that he was not above turning the reins of power into whips to crush a popular uprising. But this time, many analysts say the supreme leader is keen to avoid the horrific scenes that unfolded on the streets of Tehran and other cities four years ago.

In a tweet posted Saturday, Iran’s most powerful leader noted that, “A vote for any of these candidates is a vote for the Islamic Republic and a vote of confidence in the system”.

It’s debatable whether the high turnout in Friday’s election was a vote of confidence in the system or a desperate, last-minute bid to avoid a rerun of the past eight disastrous years. But for now, if the Iranian people and the supreme leader are willing to read from the same song sheet – or tweet – they may be looking to a less quarrelsome future, as Rohani promised.


Daily newsletterReceive essential international news every morning