Reformist hopes for breakthrough as Iran votes

An Iranian woman casts her ballot at a polling station during presidential election in Tehran on 28 June, 2024. Around 61 million Iranians are eligible to vote in the election on 28 June, called after the death of ultraconservative president Ebrahim Raisi in a helicopter crash last month.AFP

Voting in Iran's presidential election on Friday was extended a third time as Iranians cast their ballots in a contest marked by a lone reformist's bid to break through against a divided conservative field.

Around 61 million Iranians are eligible to vote in the election called after the death of ultraconservative president Ebrahim Raisi in a helicopter crash last month.

The ballot comes against a backdrop of heightened regional tensions over the Gaza war and discontent over the state of Iran's sanctions-hit economy.

The contenders approved by the Guardian Council, which vets all candidates, include conservative parliamentary speaker Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf and ultraconservative former nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili.

Also running are the sole reformist, Masoud Pezeshkian, and a fourth candidate, cleric Mostafa Pourmohammadi.

Two ultraconservatives -- Tehran mayor Alireza Zakani and Raisi's former vice president Amir-Hossein Ghazizadeh-Hashemi -- dropped out on the eve of the election.

Voting was underway nationwide at more than 58,000 polling stations, mostly in schools and mosques. Iran's interior ministry first extended the voting period to 20:00 (1630 GMT), then to 22:00 before prolonging it until midnight.

Calling it "a day of joy and happiness", supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei voted shortly after the polls opened.

"We encourage our dear people to take the issue of voting seriously and participate," said Khamenei, who holds ultimate political power in the Islamic republic.

At the last poll in 2021, turnout was just under 49 percent. Voters opted to stay away after the Guardian Council disqualified many reformists and moderates.

Cautious hopes

Ahead of this election, some voters expressed concerns about the mounting effects of soaring inflation and the decline of the rial against the dollar.

"We indeed have problems, everything is expensive, but we hope that with the arrival of a new president these problems will be solved," said Ghezelbash, a retired employee from the public sector, who only gave his last name.

Another voter in Tehran, Mohammad Reza Hadi, 37, said: "We are taking part in the election to determine the political fate and governance of our country ourselves."

Khamenei said the next president must allow Iran "to move forward without being dependent on foreign countries", although he added Iran should not "cut its relations with the world".

The candidacy of Pezeshkian, until recently a relative unknown, has revived cautious hopes for Iran's reformist wing after years of dominance by the conservative and ultraconservative camps.

Iran's reformist former president, Mohammad Khatami, praised him as "honest, fair and caring".

Khatami, who served from 1997 to 2005, had also endorsed the moderate Hassan Rouhani, who won the presidency and sealed Iran's nuclear deal in 2015 with Western powers before it was derailed three years later.

The Iranian opposition, particularly in the diaspora, has called for a boycott of the vote which they see as not credible.

Debate over hijab

During campaign debates, Jalili criticised the moderates for having signed the 2015 accord which promised Iran sanctions relief in return for curbs on its nuclear programme.

Jalili said the deal, which the United States withdrew from in 2018 under then-president Donald Trump, "did not benefit Iran at all".

Jalili led Iran's nuclear programme negotiations between 2007 and 2013. Pezeshkian has urged efforts to salvage the agreement and lift crippling sanctions.

"Are we supposed to be eternally hostile to America, or do we aspire to resolve our problems with this country?" he asked.

On the eve of the ballot, the United States on Thursday announced sanctions against shipping companies based in the United Arab Emirates for transporting Iranian oil, saying it was a response to "escalations" in Iran's nuclear programme.

The contentious issue of the compulsory head covering for women also emerged during the campaign, almost two years since a vast protest movement swept the country after the death in custody of Mahsa Amini, 22.

An Iranian Kurd, Amini had been arrested for an alleged violation of the dress code.

In televised debates, all candidates distanced themselves from the sometimes heavy-handed police arrests of women refusing to wear the hijab head covering in public.

Pourmohammadi, the only clerical candidate, said that "under no circumstances should we treat Iranian women with such cruelty".

Early projections of the results are expected by Saturday morning and official results by Sunday.

If no candidate wins 50 per cent of the vote, a second round will be held on 5 July, for only the second time in Iranian electoral history after the 2005 vote went to a runoff.

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