Rouhani still leads Iran presidential race, according to initial results


Rouhani still leads Iran presidential race, according to initial results

Millions of Iranians voted late into the night Friday to decide whether incumbent President Hassan Rouhani deserves another four years in office after securing a landmark nuclear deal, or if the sluggish economy demands a new hard-line leader who could return the country to a more confrontational path with the West. Ballot counting will start at midnight and final results are expected within 24 hours of polls closing, the semi-official Fars news agency said. This led to some five hours of extension in the amount of time the polls were open to accommodate everyone.

When he was swept to office four years ago with three times as many votes as his nearest challenger, Iranians held high hopes that he could fulfil his promises to reduce the country's isolation overseas and bring more freedoms at home.

"Rouhani's vote, particularly in rural areas, shows that Iranian people no longer believe in economic populism and radical change", said Ali Vaez, Iran analyst for the International Crisis Group, a think tank. He called for a large turnout, saying "the country is in the hands of all people".

The re-election is likely to safeguard the nuclear agreement Rouhani's government reached with global powers in 2015, under which most worldwide sanctions have been lifted in return for Iran curbing its nuclear programme.

"A number of years have passed (since the 2009 protests) and the country is demonstrating a high level of stability - this gives the system confidence, which means more room for change", Izadi said.

Iran's President Hassan Rouhani has won re-election by a wide margin, giving the moderate cleric a second four-year term to see out his agenda pushing for greater freedoms and outreach to the wider world. He has held several sensitive jobs in the Islamic Republic, including representing Khamenei for 25 years at the Supreme National Security Council.

He appeared to embrace a more reform-minded role during the campaign as he openly criticized hard-liners and Iran's powerful Revolutionary Guard, a paramilitary force involved in the war in Syria and the fight against Islamic State militants in neighboring Iraq.

By the time of closure of polling stations Rouhani had leading positions in 12 Iranian provinces and Seyed Ibrahim Raisi in 15 provinces.

The 56-year-old Raisi, who heads an influential religious charitable foundation with vast business holdings, is seen by many as close to Khamenei.

"I want Rouhani to carry out his promises".

Rouhani and Raisi offered very different answers to Iran's challenges.

Iran's Supreme Leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was among the first to cast his ballot and urged others to do the same.

A Rouhani second term would allow Iran to present its "best face" and protect the nuclear deal by driving a wedge between the USA and other signatories, said Vaez at Crisis Group.

One Rouhani supporter warmly welcomed the news, but said she expected him to provide greater social and economic freedoms, pledges he made when first elected in a landslide in 2013 by Iranians tired of economic decline and clampdowns on dissent.