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 judge who says he has already gone too far.
Voting was extended by at least four hours to 10 pm (1730 GMT) because many voters were still queued to cast their ballots, state television reported.
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 Ebrahim Raisi.
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 Revolutionary Guards security force, as well as the tacit support of Khamenei, 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 rivals have backed out and thrown their support behind Raisi.
The Guards and others 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 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 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.
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 rights records of his opponents.
“I voted for Rouhani to prevent Raisi’s victory,” 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.
“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.
For conservatives, the election represents a chance to restore the values of the 1979 revolution.
“I cast my vote already — I voted for Raisi because he is a follower of Imam Khamenei. He will not confront the leader if elected. He will protect our Islamic identity,” said Mehran Fardoust, 36, a shop keeper in Mashhad, Raisi’s home town.
Raisi has focused his campaign on the economy, visiting rural areas and villages and promising housing, jobs and more welfare benefits, a message which could resonate with millions of poor voters angry at the Tehran elite.
Two other conservative candidates are still officially in the race.
If no candidate wins more than 50 per cent of the vote, the top two, presumably Rouhani and Raisi, would face each other a second time in a run-off in a week. Ballot counting was expected to start at midnight and final results are expected within 24 hours of polls closing, TV reported.
The elections are also for city and village councils. — Reuters