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Iran's election - inside the holy city of Qom

19 Mai 2017

Presidential elections will be held in Iran tomorrow.

Known for years as a mild-mannered cleric, Iran's President Hassan Rouhani has reinvented himself as a rabble-rousing political street fighter to shore up his chances in an unexpectedly tight race against a united conservative bloc.

"The election boils down to whether Rouhani is allowed a second term to finish what he began, or potentially Iran taking a different turn and standing up to the outside world", Al Jazeera's Jonah Hull, reporting from Tehran, said. Voting was also underway in the cities of Aukland, Christchurch and Dunedin. Urging patience, he released a statement Sunday saying: "We started on a path with Rouhani and are in the middle of the journey".

It was a festive mood across Tehran on Friday as thousands lined up to vote, many coming with family and friends to debate and help each other navigate the complex choices.

"I cast my vote already - I voted for Raisi because he is a follower of Imam Khamenei".

Rouhani was a key player in the 2015 deal with the USA and world powers to curtail Iran's nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief, and has overseen a period of growing normalization of relations with the West. Inflation has dropped to single digits but unemployment is still rising. This is because these considerations lie well beyond the red lines that the regime's factions - based on their common political, social and economic interests - have any desire to touch or engage.

Raisi has promised to triple cash handouts to the poor, hoping to pick up voters that once supported Ahmadinejad.

Iranians have been voting in the country's first election since its nuclear deal with world powers, as President Hassan Rowhani faced a staunch challenge from a hardline opponent over his outreach to the West. "He is not a reformist but a bridge between hardliners and reformists", said a former senior official. Raisi accused Rouhani of "economic elitism, mismanagement, yielding to Western pressure, and corruption".

Mohammad Khatami, another reformist who served as Iran's president from 1997 to 2005, also has endorsed Rouhani. Women comprise more than half the population and have lesser rights than men in areas including inheritance, divorce and child custody. "Not anymore", he said.

Hard-liners remain suspicious of America, decades after the 1953 U.S. -engineered coup that toppled Iran's prime minister and the 1979 U.S. Embassy takeover and hostage crisis in Tehran. "Rouhani has failed to bring changes". Other opposition leaders - including Mir Hossein Mousavi, his wife Zahra Rahnavard, and Mehdi Karroubi - remain under house arrest, but have all said they will vote for Rouhani.

"I am disappointed with Rouhani".

Farzan Sabet at Stanford puts it another way: "The question many of these voters face is not so much 'Are you better off than you were four years ago?' as it is 'How much worse will life become with the alternative?" That leaves banks and many big corporations wary of doing business with Iran.

"But he is way ahead of Raisi". "I predict a record participation rate". The bigger problem for Iran is that major global banks have been reluctant to reengage with it because they fear being caught out if the USA reneges on the deal and reimposes sanctions.

Meanwhile, Iran's supreme leader has called for a self-sufficient "resistance economy", a point emphasised by Raisi.

Raisi has tried to pick up working-class votes by promising more financial support. For example, he used to criticize the nuclear negotiations publicly, but privately instructed Rouhani to get the deal done so sanctions would be lifted. "Raisi is also interested in that, but I think Rouhani is going to be more willing to give concessions to achieve that".

In addition, as nearly all the political oppositions had been wiped out since the Iranian Revolution of 1979, even if they have differences in their programs, the presidential candidates are all different branches of the same tree. For the average Iranian, the results have been lackluster, and Raisi has jumped upon this accusing Rouhani of sacrificing Iran's sovereignty for a fool's bargain. Some critics say this is created to protect politically connected domestic businesses.

Iran's election - inside the holy city of Qom