Victory for reformers

Victory for reformers

Support from two former presidents, Khatami and Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, lifted Rowhani’s status.

In a striking repudiation of the ultraconservatives who wield power in Iran, voters here overwhelmingly elected a mild-mannered cleric who advocates greater personal freedoms and a more conciliatory approach to the world.

The cleric, Hassan Rowhani, 64, won a commanding 50.7 per cent of the vote in the six-way race, according to final results released Saturday, avoiding a runoff in the race to replace the departing president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose tenure was defined largely by confrontation with the West and a seriously hobbled economy at home.

Thousands of jubilant supporters poured into the streets of Tehran, dancing, blowing car horns and waving placards and ribbons of purple, Rowhani’s campaign color. After the previous election in 2009, widely seen as rigged, many Iranians were shaking their heads that their votes were counted this time.

In the women’s compartment of a Tehran subway, riders were astonished. “They were all shocked, like me,” said Fatemah, 58. “It is unbelievable, have the people really won?”Though Rowhani’s election was not expected to represent a break with Iran’s nuclear policies, voters linked him with the Khatami era, when Iran froze its nuclear programme, eased social restrictions and promoted dialogue with the West, giving them hope that he would try to lead Iran out of international isolation.

But if the election was a victory for reformers and the middle class, it also served the conservative goals of the supreme leader - restoring at least a patina of legitimacy to the theocratic state, providing a safety valve for a public distressed by years of economic malaise and isolation, and returning a cleric to the presidency. Ahmadinejad was the first noncleric to hold the presidency, and often clashed with the religious order and its traditionalist allies.

The question for Western capitals is whether a more conciliatory approach can lead to substantive change in the conflict with Iran over its nuclear program. A willingness to talk does not mean a willingness to concede.

Khamenei still holds ultimate power over the nation’s civil and religious affairs, including over the disputed nuclear program. Sharif Husseini, a member of Parliament, warned Saturday that “nothing would change” in Iran’s nuclear policies. “All these policies have been decided by the supreme leader,” he was quoted as saying by the Iranian Student News Agency.

For all his reformist credentials, Rowhani backs the nuclear programme, which Iran contends is for peaceful uses but which the West believes is aimed at producing atomic weapons. In a 2004 speech, which was not made public until years later, he noted that even when Iran had suspended uranium enrichment, it was able to make its greatest nuclear advances because the pressure was off.

 Analysts are predicting at least some change. The president does have some control over the economy - the public’s primary concern recently - and through the bully pulpit of the office he can set the tone of public debate on a wide variety of issues, from placing restrictions on young people’s socialising to the nuclear programme.

A White House statement Saturday congratulated Iranians on “their courage in making their voices heard” and urged the new government to “heed the will of the Iranian people and make responsible choices that create a better future for all Iranians.” The United States, it added, “remains ready to engage the Iranian government directly in order to reach a diplomatic solution that will fully address the international community’s concerns about Iran’s nuclear program.”

As the race began, conservatives and hard-liners had first seemed to close ranks around Saeed Jalili, the nation’s hard-line nuclear negotiator and a close ally of the supreme leader. Jalili campaigned on the idea of no compromise, explicitly referring to negotiations with the West over Iran’s nuclear programme, but which may also have been seen by the weary electorate in Iran as a cornerstone of his domestic intentions. He won just over 11 percent of the vote.

Rowhani, by comparison, used a key as his campaign symbol, focusing on issues important to the young, including unemployment. His message was one of outreach, responsiveness and inclusion. “Let’s end extremism,” Rowhani said during a campaign speech. “We have no other option than moderation.”

He criticised the much-hated morality police who arrest women for not having proper headscarves and coats. He called for the lifting of restrictions on the Internet. He said that “in consensus with higher officials” political prisoners would be freed. At the time his campaign words sounded like empty promises to many potential voters, who pointed out that Rowhani did not enjoy the support of those in power.

But support from two former presidents, Khatami and Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who was disqualified from the election, lifted Rowhani’s status, helping him tap into the votes of millions of dissatisfied Iranians.

His appeal to the younger generation was crucial in a nation where there is an increasing divide between the millions of youths - two-thirds of the 70 million population are under 35 - and the ruling hard-liners who use morality police, Internet blocking and other harsh measures to try to mold those born after the revolution.

Many Iranians who voted Friday suggested they had mixed feelings about casting a ballot for any of the candidates carefully vetted by the ruling clerics. But they said that at least Rowhani represented a distinct change from the combative style of Ahmadinejad, who presided over a painful economic decline and international isolation.