In a surprising political upset, a candidate who campaigned on a platform of tolerance and social reform has been elected president of Iran in a landslide, defeating the candidate favored by the ruling Islamic clerics, according to results announced on Saturday.
The winner, Mohammed Khatami, who was forced out of the government five years ago after conservatives accused him of being too permissive, was supported by millions of Iranian voters, who are increasingly opposed to the controls on private and public life imposed by the 18-year-old Islamic government.
Although the power of the Iranian president is limited, and no major foreign policy changes are expected, Khatami will be at the head of a new government that he will appoint and his election marks the first time since the Islamic revolution of 1979 that a figure associated with moderation has won a broad mandate.
Khatami won 20.7 million votes, or nearly 70 percent of the 29.7 million ballots cast in the election on Friday, Iranian radio and television reported. His closest rival, the speaker of the Parliament, had about 24 percent.
The four candidates who ran for president were handpicked by the Council of Guardians, the country’s highest religious body, and the fact that the council approved Khatami’s candidacy signifies that he is considered well within the ideological boundaries that it considers acceptable. But he is the first Iranian leader since the revolution that overthrew Shah Mohammed Riza Pahlavi who has dared to say that many revolutionary policies need to be reappraised.
Khatami did not issue a victory statement, but his principal opponent, Ali Akbar Nategh-Nouri, conceded defeat on Saturday afternoon.
“I hope that you will prove able to comply with the constitution and all our laws,” Nategh-Nouri said in a statement addressed to his rival. “I wish you luck and success, and will cooperate fully with you.”
The results showed that Khatami did well not only in cities and towns, where intellectuals are concentrated and where people are more resentful of the government’s social and economic policies, but also in villages and rural outposts.
It was an almost unimaginable triumph for a candidate who had been considered an outsider since beginning his campaign in January and who had been attacked in the pro-government press as a liberal with weak Islamic credentials.
There were signs all week that Khatami was attracting wide public support. But many Iranians, accustomed to a form of politics in which the religious leaders always seemed able to impose their will, doubted that he could win. Leading clerics, including Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, had made clear that they favored the candidacy of Nategh-Nouri.
Khatami will not take office until August. He is expected to name an entirely new Cabinet, likely to include more technocrats and fewer religious figures.
In an interview Saturday as the results were being announced, Ahmad Borghani, a close aide and spokesman for the president-elect, said that Khatami would “try to make changes as best he can.”
He said one of the first priorities would be legalizing political parties, which have been effectively outlawed since the revolution.
“Of course, Mr. Khatami will not continue the present restrictions on the press and media,” Borghani said.
Borghani also suggested that the new government would seek to curb the police and religious militia whose members patrol streets and neighborhoods in search of people who are having parties, listening to forbidden music, watching imported videos or satellite television, playing cards, or otherwise violating the social code.
Young people formed the backbone of Khatami’s political campaign. Throughout the country, they volunteered with an enthusiasm many had never before shown for a political candidate.
In a country where 70 percent of the population is said to be under the age of 25, they form a key constituency that does not feel bound by the ideology that brought the revolutionary government to power.
The other group that gave especially strong support to Khatami was women. Because they played an important role in the 1979 revolutionary movement and because many of them supported the eight-year war with Iraq, women here have great political power.
Although under Islamic law introduced after the revolution they must still cover themselves in public, they have more rights than women in some other Muslim countries. But many are assertive and unsatisfied, and complain about laws that discriminate against them.