TEHRAN – Millions of Iranians head to the polls early today to choose a new president in balloting that has taken on a competitive edge as a single moderate contender faces off against a splintered array of hard-line hopefuls.
Today’s election is the first since the disputed 2009 balloting that gave President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad a second term amid allegations of vote-rigging, triggering massive street protests and a police crackdown. Authorities have vowed that the tumultuous scene of four years ago will not be repeated, and security is expected to be tight.
Ahmadinejad is constitutionally barred from seeking a third term.
Polls indicated that no candidate among the six contenders would garner a majority, forcing a June 21 runoff among the two top finishers, the official news media reported.
The slumping economy has been the major issue, with each candidate vowing to reduce inflation and unemployment. Western-led sanctions tied to Iran’s controversial nuclear program have battered the country.
Much attention in recent days has focused on the momentum gained by Hassan Rowhani, a centrist initially considered a long shot until the only other moderate-leaning candidate dropped out. Rowhani has enthusiastically embraced reformist themes in recent election rallies, injecting energy into the campaign and raising the hope of moderates long disillusioned about the prospect of change in the Islamic republic.
It is somewhat of an irony that reform-minded Iranians have abruptly rallied around the candidacy of Rowhani, 65, a bespectacled, white-turbaned legal expert and longtime establishment mainstay who is the only cleric among the would-be presidents.
“There might be some dim light at the end of the tunnel,” said Morteza Nazer Kazemi, 56, a shop owner in the Tehran bazaar who said he had initially planned to skip the vote but was drawn to Rowhani’s relatively liberal declarations, including his support for reconciliation with the West. “At least if the vote for Rowhani is high, then the hard-liners will realize that the society is pro-reform and for opening up.”
Conservatives, meanwhile, failed to unite around a single officer-seeker, meaning their vote will probably be fractured. The three presumed conservative front-runners are Saeed Jalili, Iran’s nuclear negotiator; former Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati; and Tehran Mayor Mohammed Baqer Qalibaf.