TEHRAN: A banner of ultraconservative Iranian cleric and presidential candidate Ebrahim Raisi, is pictured in Tehran, yesterday on the eve of the Islamic republic’s presidential election. – AFP

TEHRAN: On the eve of Iran’s presidential election, expected to hand victory to the ultraconservative cleric Ebrahim Raisi, the candidate-vetting Guardian Council insisted yesterday that “the political contest is serious”. “The media and the people have testified that this is a good competition,” said the head of the 12-member council, Abbas Ali Kadkhodaee, a day before almost 60 million voters are asked to head to the ballots.

Three televised debates between the seven candidates, all men, who were approved by the unelected body of jurists and clerics, had shown that “the political competition is serious,” Kadkhodaee told a news conference. The vote today will choose a successor to Iran’s moderate President Hassan Rouhani, who cannot run again now after serving two consecutive four-year terms, and who leaves office in August.

Turnout is expected to be low in a country where many have been demoralized by years of painful economic crisis that was brought on by a crippling US sanctions regime and worsened by the Covid-19 pandemic. “I left my main job because I could not pay the rent for my shop, and my (former) employees are now jobless,” lamented Tehran resident Nasrollah, who said he had been a car mechanic for 47 years. “I have no money. All families are now facing an economic problem. How can we vote for these people who did this to us? It’s not right.”

‘No political views’
The election comes as Tehran holds renewed talks with world powers to revive a battered 2015 nuclear deal, which the United States unilaterally withdrew from three years ago under then president Donald Trump. Ultimate power in Iran lies with the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, but the president has significant influence on issues from industrial policy to foreign affairs.

Many voters were dismayed however when a field of almost 600 hopefuls for the presidency was reduced to just seven candidates by the Guardian Council. Among the prominent figures barred from running were former parliament speaker Ali Larijani, who demanded that the council “officially and publicly disclose all the reasons” for his disqualification.

Rouhani later said he had urged greater “competition” in a letter to the supreme leader, who acknowledged that some candidates had been treated “unjustly” as “they and their families were accused of false things”, without giving names. The field was further reduced Wednesday when three of the seven candidates dropped out, shortly before the election campaign ended at 7 am (0230 GMT) yesterday.

The only reformist left in the race against Raisi and two other ultraconservatives is the relatively low-profile central bank chief Abdolnasser Hemmati. Kadkhodaee said yesterday that the candidates were vetted according to “the electoral law” and that “the Guardian Council has no political views”.

‘Form of protest’
Raisi, Iran’s judiciary chief who dresses in a black turban and religious robe, belongs to the ultraconservative camp that most deeply distrusts the United States, labelled the “Great Satan” and the “Global Arrogance” in official rhetoric. He has been mentioned in Iranian media as a possible successor to Khamenei, who turns 82 in July.

Khamenei also served as president when he took over in 1989 upon the death of the Islamic republic’s founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomenei. In a televised speech on Wednesday, Khamenei urged voters to turn out in droves to elect “a powerful president”, warning that “the Satanic power centres of the world” are trying to undermine the ballot. But some disillusioned Iranians said they planned to stay away from the polls. Maryam, an employee, said that “not voting is a form of protest”. “If there were a candidate I approved of, I would vote.” – AFP