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Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has been reelected in a landslide, winning 57 percent of the vote and defeating the hard-line cleric Ebrahim Raisi who received only 39 percent. A record number of Iranians showed up at the polls—41 million or 73.5 percent of all eligible voters.
It is difficult to say, however, what is more significant about Friday’s election: Rouhani’s landslide victory and the stronger mandate he has now received or the decisive defeat of Raisi and the Islamic hard-liners who worked tirelessly to oust the president. The distinction is important. Not all those who voted for Rouhani did so because they supported him. Many cast their ballots simply to stop the hard-liners from taking control of the government and to reject Raisi, an Islamic judge with a dark past.
Although Raisi campaigned on a platform to tackle corruption and alleviate poverty, promising to increase monthly cash handouts for the poor (albeit without a plan on how it would be funded), he has a stained past. In 1987, he was a member of the so-called Death Committee, which signed off on the executions of more than 4,000 political prisoners who were already serving out their sentences. The executions are considered a dark and disturbing episode in the rule of Iran’s clergy. The then designated successor to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Ayatollah Ali Montazeri, was furious with Raisi and other members of the Death Committee. “Let me be frank with you,” he had warned them. “You have committed the biggest crime in the Islamic Republic—a crime that will condemn us all in history. You all will be judged as the biggest criminals in history.” The fact that Raisi, with a background such as this, ran for the highest office in Iran speaks to the audacity of the hard-liners and their disregard for public opinion.
In the days before the vote, there were reports that the hard-liners were mobilizing all their resources and forces to bring out as many people as they could to vote and oust Rouhani. By taking the presidency, the hard-liners would effectively eliminate the last center of power outside their control. The news spurred millions of people to cast their vote against the hard-liners and their frightening vision of an inward-looking Islamic government bent on further stifling dissent and curbing personal and political freedoms. A hard-line government under a President Raisi would have included the most extreme members of the Islamic regime.
As with every election in Iran, there were debates just before the vote among many, particularly the young, as to whether voting would change anything and whether a choice between two senior clerics was even a choice. There was much doubt over whether Rouhani could ultimately reshape the country, and for the better. Many argued that in his first four years, Rouhani had done little to improve their lives and had failed to stop the downward spiral in their standards of living. One of Rouhani’s most ardent supporters, Sadegh Zibakalam, a professor of politics at Tehran University, even told his followers on social media that the election was a dismal choice between two uninspiring candidates. “In life there are occasions when one has to choose between bad and worse,” he wrote. “This is one of those occasions.”
At the same time, there are those who voted for Rouhani for the progressive message he promoted throughout his campaign. He shifted decisively to the left and embraced the cause of reform in the months prior to the election. He promised to open up the political atmosphere, extend individual and political freedoms, grant freer access to the Internet, revitalize the economy, end extremism, and hold many state institutions, such as the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, accountable. He also vowed to build bridges to the outside world, to seek peace, to safeguard the nuclear deal by abiding by Iran’s commitments, and to negotiate the lifting of the remaining U.S. sanctions on Iran. His platform resonated with the reform movement, which is still very much a political force in Iran, albeit a silent one. Millions of people remain loyal to the father of the movement, former President Mohammad Khatami, who backed Rouhani. Although the leaders of the reformist Green Movement have been under house arrest in Iran for more than six years without having had a trial, they have not been forgotten and are often the focus of outspoken supporters who remind Rouhani of them at every election rally he has held. Time and again he has said to them, “Give me a strong mandate and all your demands will be met.”
Whatever Iranians’ misgivings about Rouhani, the millions who voted for him on Friday proved that it was his vision of Iran that they sought for their country’s future. By stopping the hard-liners, there is again a sense of hope in Iran, something that until Friday was in short supply. After the results were declared on Saturday, tens of thousands came out on the streets to celebrate, many dancing in elation. It was indeed a big day for Iran.