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Iranians queue to vote as Rouhani faces strong hardline challenge

20 May 2017

Polls opened in Iran today with voters set to give their verdict on President Hassan Rouhani's policy of opening up to the world and efforts to rebuild the stagnant economy.

The street carnivals of Tehran's night hours over the past few days aimed to cruise the voters to the ballot boxes at 8:00 a.m. local time (0330 GMT) on May 19 to decide on their next president.

According to Iran's Interior Ministry, around 56.5 million are eligible to vote, of which 1.3 million are first timers.

President Rouhani's power is vastly outweighed by that of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

The Guards hope that a win for Raisi will give them an opportunity to claw back economic and political power lost in Shi'ite Iran's complex theocratic and republican governing structure since 2015, when Iran struck a nuclear deal with world powers that brought it out of worldwide isolation. On that note, a report by the Eurasia Group described the Iranian elections as a "roller coaster" and said that the withdrawal of Tehran Mayor Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf from the presidential race has steered Rouhani down a "straighter path to reelection".

The candidates who have been approved and shortlisted are all from different factions of the ruling regime and thus the overall outcome of the election is a foregone conclusion - a candidate totally committed to continuing the same strategic direction of the theocratic regime will be appointed. After registration as presidential contenders, which should be done in a 5-day period one month before the election day, the names and credentials of candidates is taken to the Guardian Council.

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Raisi says he will stick by the 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, that saw curbs to Iran's atomic programme in exchange for sanctions relief, but he points to the continued economic slump as proof that Rouhani's diplomatic efforts have failed.

Millions of Iranians are still queuing up to vote, showing strong turnout in a tight presidential contest, which pits President Rouhani against a serious challenger, Raeisi.

Raisi is widely seen as Khamenei's preferred candidate - indeed, he is often mentioned as his possible successor.

This is the procedure of Iran's presidential elections and the president's prerogatives. Those opposing Mr Rouhani also all said they accepted the nuclear deal, once blasted by hard-liners, making the accord largely a non-issue.

Many pro-reform voters are still lukewarm Rouhani supporters, disappointed with his failure to make broader changes during his first term.

"We have no other way, but to endear a tolerant space, to accept each other's existence, to live up with diverse opinions and tastes, then to grow up as a descent mother, father or politician for the good of next generation", Taherkhani, the master's graduate of social science from Tehran's Azad Markazi University, argued.

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"Raisi is the enthusiastic candidate of the latter, while Rohani is the default candidate of the former", he said. But they are anxious to keep out Raisi, who they see as representing the security state at its most fearsome: in the 1980s he was one of four judges who sentenced thousands of political prisoners to death.

Unemployment, meanwhile, remains stuck in the double digits, with almost a third of Iranian youth out of work, according to the International Monetary Fund. He will meet with Sunni Arab leaders who are opposed to Iran's backing of Syrian President Bashar Assad and remain skeptical of its regional intentions. "We proceed from the assumption that the relations between our two countries should preserve positive dynamics and historical ties that we had developed", she said.

After the elections, any candidate with 50 percent of the votes plus one will be announced as the president of Iran.

Supporters of the two leading candidates honked, blared music and held pictures of the hopefuls out of vehicle windows on the traffic-clogged and heavily policed streets of Tehran late into the night Thursday, ignoring a ban on campaigning in the final 24 hours before the vote.

Under Iran's system, the president is subordinate only to the supreme leader, who is chosen by a clerical panel and has the ultimate say over all matters of state.

"We want freedom of the press", he declared.

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Iranians queue to vote as Rouhani faces strong hardline challenge