TEHRAN: Iranian President Hassan Rouhani was on track for a convincing election victory with voters seeming to back his efforts to rebuild foreign ties, as initial results were announced on Saturday.
With more than half of votes counted, Rouhani had won 14.6 million compared to 10.1 million for his hardline challenger Ebrahim Raisi, election committee chief Ali Asghar Ahmadi told state television.
A huge turnout on Friday — estimated at more than 40 million out of 56 million registered voters — led to the vote being extended by several hours to deal with long queues.
With results from urban areas still to be counted — and seen as more likely to favour Rouhani — the initial figures pointed towards a landslide for the incumbent.
“I congratulate the great victory of the Iranian nation in creating a huge and memorable epic in the continuation of the path of ‘wisdom and hope’,” tweeted Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri, referring to the government’s slogan.
Rouhani, a 68-year-old moderate cleric who spearheaded a 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, has framed the election as a choice between greater civil liberties and “extremism”.
Hardline cleric Raisi, 56, had positioned himself as a defender of the poor and called for a much tougher line with the West.
He targeted working class voters hit by high unemployment and austerity measures, as well as those who worry the values of the 1979 revolution are under threat.
But voters seem to have backed Rouhani’s efforts to reach out to the world.
The central achievement of his first term was a deal with six powers led by the United States that eased crippling economic sanctions in exchange for curbs to Iran’s nuclear programme.
Rouhani gained a reprieve this week when Washington agreed to continue waiving nuclear-related sanctions, keeping the deal on track for now.
But the election comes at a tense moment in relations with the United States, with President Donald Trump still threatening to abandon the accord and visiting Iran’s bitter regional rival Saudi Arabia this weekend.
‘Voting to keep that’
Although Rouhani has been deeply entrenched in Iran’s security establishment since the early days of the revolution, he has emerged as the standard-bearer for reformists after their movement was decimated in the wake of mass protests in 2009.
At recent rallies, his supporters chanted for reformist leaders who have been under house arrest since 2011.
Rouhani has failed in his efforts to release those leaders as he promised during his last campaign in 2013, but suggested that a strong mandate this time could give him more leverage against the conservative-dominated judiciary and security services.
“We’ve entered this election to tell those practising violence and extremism that your era is over,” he said at a recent rally.
But it was the economy that dominated much of the campaign.
Rouhani has brought inflation down from around 40 percent when he took office in 2013, but prices are still rising by nine percent a year.
Oil sales have rebounded since the nuclear deal took effect in January last year, but growth in the rest of the economy has been limited, leaving unemployment at 12.5 percent overall, and at almost 30 percent for young people.
Raisi promised more focus on the poor and attacked the government as corrupt and elitist.
But he was a relative unknown when he entered the race earlier this year, having occupied powerful but backroom positions in the judiciary through most of his career.
“We are still not pleased with the situation, but in the four years of Rouhani there has been a relative improvement and I’m voting to keep that,” said Alireza Nikpour, a 40-year-old photographer in Tehran, as he queued to cast his ballot on Friday.
Last month, the Guardian Council excluded all but six candidates for the election but still left a stark choice between moderate-reformists and hardliners.
Two dropped out to back Raisi and Rouhani, respectively, while the remaining candidates — reformist Mostafa Hashemitaba and conservative Mostafa Mirsalim — were headed for only a marginal percentage of the votes.