Iranians voted in a presidential election on Friday amid concerns over a low turnout with the conservative head of the judiciary, Ebrahim Raisi, widely seen as the frontrunner.
Nearly 60 million eligible voters in Iran will decide the fate of four candidates in the fray to succeed President Hassan Rouhani.
The Guardian Council, a 12-member constitutional vetting body under Supreme Leader Ali Hosseini Khamenei, barred hundreds of candidates including reformists and those aligned with Rouhani.
Polls opened at 7am local time (2:30 GMT) and will close at midnight (19:30 GMT) but can be extended for two hours. The results are expected midday on Saturday.
After casting his vote in the capital Tehran, Ayatollah Khamenei urged Iranians to do the same saying “each vote counts … come and vote and choose your president”.
With uncertainty surrounding Iran’s efforts to revive its 2015 nuclear deal and growing poverty at home after years of United States sanctions, the turnout for the vote is being seen by Iranian analysts as a referendum on the current leadership’s handling of an array of crises.
‘It’s not right’
Voter enthusiasm was dampened by the disqualification of many candidates and the deep economic malaise, which has sparked burgeoning inflation and job losses – the crisis deepened by the COVID pandemic.
“I’m not a politician, I don’t know anything about politics,” a Tehran car mechanic who gave his name as Nasrollah said. “I have no money. All families are now facing economic problems. How can we vote for these people who did this to us? It’s not right.”
Al Jazeera’s Dorsa Jabbari, reporting from the capital Tehran, said there is lot of support behind Raisi.
“The general public has one thing on their mind that they want some change from the moderate and reformist government they have seen over the past eight years,” she said.
“There is a sense that the economic situation in the country is not going to change any time soon. So they are hoping Raisi will bring some kind of change.”
State television showed long queues outside polling stations in several cities.
State-linked opinion polling and analysts put the hardliner Raisi, 60, as the undisputed frontrunner.
If elected, Raisi would be the first serving Iranian president sanctioned by the US government even before entering office over his involvement in the mass execution of political prisoners in 1988, as well as his time as the head of Iran’s internationally criticised judiciary – one of the world’s top executioners.
Raisi, wearing a black turban that identifies him in Shia tradition as a direct descendant of Islam’s Prophet Muhammad, later voted from a mosque in southern Tehran, waving to those gathered to cast ballots.
A win for Raisi would confirm the political demise of pragmatist politicians such as Rouhani, weakened by the US decision to quit the nuclear deal and reimpose sanctions in a move that stifled rapprochement with the West.
But it would not disrupt Iran’s bid to revive the agreement and break free of tough oil and financial sanctions, Iranian officials say, with the country’s ruling elite aware their political fortunes rely on tackling worsening economic hardship.
Former central bank chief, Abdolnaser Hemmati, is running as the race’s moderate candidate but has not inspired the same support as Rouhani, who is term-limited from seeking the office again.
“Elections are important despite the problems and issues… I wish we didn’t have any of those problems since the registration day,” said Rouhani after casting his vote, a clear reference to the rejection of prominent moderate and conservative candidates from the race by the hardline election body.
The remaining two candidates are 66-year-old hardliner Mohsen Rezaei and Amir Hossein Ghazizadeh Hashemi, a longtime member of parliament from Mashhad.
Tensions remain high with both the United States and Israel, which is believed to have carried out a series of attacks targeting Iranian nuclear sites and assassinating the scientist who created its military atomic programme decades earlier.
Raisi – who like his political patron the supreme leader is an implacable critic of the West – is under US sanctions for alleged involvement in executions of political prisoners decades ago.
“If elected, Raisi will be the first Iranian president in recent memory to have not only been sanctioned before he has taken office, but potentially sanctioned while being in office,” said analyst Jason Brodsky.
Ultimate political power in Iran – since its 1979 revolution toppled the US-backed monarchy – rests with the supreme leader.
But the president, as the top official of the state bureaucracy, also wields significant influence in fields from industrial policy to foreign affairs.
A blacksmith in Tehran, who identified himself only as Abolfazl, described his disappointment with Friday’s election as a patriot who took part in the 1979 revolution.
“I am over 60-years old and in my youth I revolted against the shah of Iran,” he said. “I took part in a revolution to choose for myself, not so others can choose for me. I love my country, but I do not accept these candidates.”