Hardliner Raisi wins Iran presidency in landslide, amid record-low voter turnout

Ultraconservative ‘executioner’ gets 62% of the vote, far ahead of rivals; without naming cleric, Rouhani says his successor has been elected

Ebrahim Raisi, a candidate in Iran's presidential elections waves to the media after casting his vote at a polling station in Tehran, Iran, June 18, 2021  (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi)
Ebrahim Raisi, a candidate in Iran's presidential elections waves to the media after casting his vote at a polling station in Tehran, Iran, June 18, 2021 (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi)

Iran’s hardline judiciary chief won the country’s presidential election in a landslide victory Saturday, propelling the supreme leader’s protégé into Tehran’s highest civilian position in a vote that appeared to see the lowest turnout in the Islamic Republic’s history.

Ebrahim Raisi was elected president with 61.95 percent of the vote, according to figures released by Interior Minister Aboldreza Rahmani Fazli.

Voter turnout was 48.8 percent of the more than 59 million eligible voters in Friday’s election, he said, a record low for a presidential election in the Islamic republic.

In second place by a wide margin was the ultraconservative Mohsen Rezai, a former commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, who won 11.8%. He was followed in third place by the only reformist left in the race, former central bank chief Abdolnasser Hemmati, who scored 8.4%. Last placed out of the four candidates was another ultraconservative, Amirhossein Ghazizadeh-Hashemi, who won 3.5%.

Over 3.7 million ballots were declared void — more votes than were won by second-placed Rezai.

Three of the original seven candidates had dropped out two days before the election — reformist Mohsen Mehralizadeh and ultraconservatives Saeed Jalili and Alireza Zakani.

File: Iranian former chief of the Revolutionary Guards Mohsen Rezai takes part in an anti-US demonstration in the capital Tehran, January 3, 2020, following the killing of Iranian Revolutionary Guards Major General Qasem Soleimani in a US strike on his convoy at Baghdad international airport. (Photo by ATTA KENARE / AFP)

Raisi dominated the election only after a panel under the watch of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei disqualified his strongest competition.

He was far ahead of former Revolutionary Guard commander Mohsen Rezaei, moderate Abdolnasser Hemmati and Amirhossein Ghazizadeh Hashemi.

Raisi’s candidacy, and the sense the election served more as a coronation for him, sparked widespread apathy among eligible voters in the Islamic Republic, which has held up turnout as a sign of support for the theocracy since its 1979 Islamic Revolution. Some, including former hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, called for a boycott.

The disqualifications affected reformists and those who backed President Hassan Rouhani, whose administration both reached the 2015 nuclear deal with world powers and saw it disintegrate three years later with then-US President Donald Trump’s unilateral withdrawal of America from the accord.

Rouhani said Saturday his successor had been elected, but did not name Raisi.

“I congratulate the people on their choice,” said Rouhani. “My official congratulations will come later, but we know who got enough votes in this election and who is elected today by the people.”

In this photo released by the official website of the office of the Iranian Presidency, President Hassan Rouhani, left, speaks with the media after his meeting with President-elect Ebrahim Raisi, right, who is current judiciary chief, in Tehran, Iran, June 19, 2021 (Iranian Presidency Office via AP)

Hemmati offered his congratulations on Instagram to Raisi early Saturday.

“I hope your administration provides causes for pride for the Islamic Republic of Iran, improves the economy and life with comfort and welfare for the great nation of Iran,” he wrote.

Candidate for the presidential election Abdolnasser Hemmati, former Central Bank chief, speaks with media after voting at a polling station in Tehran, Iran, June 18, 2021 (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)

On Twitter, Rezaei praised Khamenei and the Iranian people for taking part in the vote.

“God willing, the decisive election of my esteemed brother, Ayatollah Dr. Seyyed Ebrahim Raisi, promises the establishment of a strong and popular government to solve the country’s problems,” Rezaei wrote.

The quick concessions, while not unusual in Iran’s previous elections, signaled what semiofficial news agencies inside Iran had been hinting at for hours: That the carefully controlled vote had been a blowout win for Raisi amid the boycott calls.

In this picture made available by Young Journalists Club, YJC, presidential candidate Mohsen Rezaei speaks with state-run TV journalists in Tehran, Iran, June 12, 2021 (Ayoub Ghaderi/ Young Journalists Club, YJC via AP)

As night fell Friday, turnout appeared far lower than in Iran’s last presidential election in 2017. At one polling place inside a mosque in central Tehran, a Shiite cleric played soccer with a young boy as most of its workers napped in a courtyard. At another, officials watched videos on their mobile phones as state television blared beside them, offering only tight shots of locations around the country — as opposed to the long, snaking lines of past elections.

Balloting came to a close at 2.a.m. Saturday, after the government extended voting to accommodate what it called “crowding” at several polling places nationwide.

Iranian state television sought to downplay the turnout, pointing to the Gulf Arab sheikhdoms surrounding it ruled by hereditary leaders, and the lower participation in Western democracies. After a day of amplifying officials’ attempts to get out the vote, state TV broadcast scenes of jam-packed voting booths in several provinces overnight, seeking to portray a last-minute rush to the polls.

Voters queue at a polling station during the presidential elections in Tehran, Iran, June 18, 2021 (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)

But since the 1979 revolution overthrew the shah, Iran’s theocracy has cited voter turnout as a sign of its legitimacy, beginning with its first referendum that won 98.2% support that simply asked whether or not people wanted an Islamic Republic.

Voter apathy also has been fed by the devastated state of the economy and subdued campaigning amid months of surging coronavirus cases. Poll workers wore gloves and masks, and some wiped down ballot boxes with disinfectants.

Raisi will 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 criticized judiciary — one of the world’s top executioners.

It also would put hardliners firmly in control across the Iranian government as negotiations in Vienna continue to try to save a tattered deal meant to limit Iran’s nuclear program at a time when Tehran is enriching uranium at its highest levels ever, though still short of weapons-grade levels.

Tensions remain high with both the US and Israel, which is believed to have carried out a series of attacks targeting Iranian nuclear sites as well as assassinating the scientist who created its military atomic program decades earlier.

Whoever wins will likely serve two four-year terms and thus may be at the helm at what could be one of the most crucial moments for the country in decades — the death of the 82-year-old Khamenei. Already, speculation has mounted that Raisi may be a contender for the position, along with Khamenei’s son, Mojtaba.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei casts his vote for the presidential election at a polling station in the capital Tehran, on June 18, 2021.(Atta KENARE / AFP)

For his part, Khamenei warned of “foreign plots” seeking to depress turnout in a speech Wednesday. A flyer handed out Wednesday on the streets of Tehran by hard-liners echoed that and bore the image of Revolutionary Guard Gen. Qassem Soleimani, who was killed in a US drone strike in 2020. A polling station was set up by Soleimani’s grave on Friday.

“If we do not vote: Sanctions will be heavier, the US and Israel will be encouraged to attack Iran,” the leaflet warned. “Iran will be under the shadow of a Syrian-style civil war and the ground will be ready for the assassination of scientists and important figures.”

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