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Rouhani and the Iranian hope for reform and repair

Rouhani bagged 57 percent of the votes, winning comfortably just as in 2013

Ranjita Ganesan 

Rouhani and the Iranian hope for reform and repair

Hassan Rouhani, whose reached a with the in 2015 that brought out of years of economy-battering sanctions, has won a second term as President. Purple, the colour of the moderate cleric’s election campaign, dotted the streets of Tehran, pictures on social media showed, as supporters gathered with flags and posters to celebrate the Saturday morning announcement. 

He bagged 57 percent of the votes, winning comfortably just as in 2013, when he claimed three times as many votes as the first runner-up. Although decisive, the result was not entirely predictable. It followed a race which heated up in the final days when Rouhani delivered fiery speeches, suggesting corruption and stifling of rights by his hardline opponents. It was feared a loss could lead to house arrest, a condition faced by outspoken reformists Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi after past elections.

Despite the process being less-than-free or fair, elections in the Islamic Republic of enjoy the active, emotional participation of people. As Reza Akbari, a Washington DC-based analyst recently noted, Iranian people prefer changes in the system through gradual evolution rather than revolution. While anyone can register to contest, the final candidates are only selected by a guardian council, consisting of top clerics and jurists who routinely ward off women hopefuls. 

Yet, voter turnout was high at some 70 percent this year, and 72.77 percent the last time. Voting took place on the weekly holiday Friday, and polling hours were extended several times. Candidates had been required to spar in three live televised debates, fielding questions on topics of economics, foreign policy, and the arts.

Rouhani’s only serious competitor was the ultra-conservative Ebrahim Raisi, after another strong hardline candidate Mohammad Ghalibaf (incumbent mayor of Tehran) pulled out of the running. Where Rouhani made a re-election appeal saying the country was halfway down a path of improvement, the hardline faction accused him of cozying up to Western powers. It also alleged his policy favours the wealthy, citing a rich-poor divide of the ‘four percent versus the 96 percent’ (akin to the global ‘one percent versus 99 percent’ narrative).

For Raisi, who was widely rumoured to be a potential successor to Ayatollah Khamenei as supreme leader of the country, this defeat could dent influence. The conservative cleric heads an important shrine in city of Mashhad. He was the second youngest contender, at 56 years, but was dubbed as lacking charm in political debates.

The 68-year-old Rouhani, described as a globalist, agreed to limit the country’s nuclear programme two years ago to heal ties — increasing oil exports and opening up to foreign investment. This was a reversal of the isolation imposed on after predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sped up the nuclear agenda. Inflation, which had climbed to higher than 40 percent, has been reduced to near 10 percent according to reports since.

A technocrat, Rouhani seems to embody the aspirations of modern youths and the middle class, especially women who contributed significantly to his previous win too. His milder approach to social restrictions has been demonstrated in his sharing of photographs dressed in casuals while watching the Football World Cup, or more recently, posing for pictures with women supporters who wore loosely-tied scarves. He also has the endorsement of former President Mohammad Khatami, a pivotal reformist figure.

The returning President will have his work cut out in the next four years at the helm. By most accounts, the financial rewards of the have yet to reflect in everyday life. He will have to move to alleviate significantly-high poverty and unemployment. To compound challenges, President Donald Trump’s stance on is ambivalent. While his recently renewed the waiver of economic sanctions, at the same time, Trump travelled to Saudi Arabia, which seeks punitive actions against Iran’s controversial ties with Syria’s Bashar al-Assad remain a matter of concern.

Human rights violations have continued in the form of executions, imprisonment of intellectuals, and censorship. Artistic liberty is imperilled, documentary filmmaker Rokhsareh Ghaemmaghami said to me on the sidelines of a film festival last November. “I don’t see any change in freedom of speech still. Journalists and filmmakers are in jail. The President does not have much say in that, we have the judiciary.” Both expectations and disenchantment seem at large, but in re-electing Rouhani, Iranians have chosen not to rock a somewhat-steadying boat.