The Iranian people have spoken and they have done so emphatically. Last night Hassan Rowhani won Iran’s presidential election with just over 50 per cent of the popular vote and quite possibly saved his country from another four years of suffering.
The result was startling. Few, either inside Iran or abroad, gave Rowhani a chance. Instead, attention focused on the supposed frontrunners: the Mayor of Tehran, Mohammad-Bagher Ghalibaf and Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili – believed to be the Supreme leader Ali Khamenei’s personal choice and therefore, not unreasonably, the favorite. In the end, though, Interior Minister Mostafa Mohammad Najjar announced that Rowhani had received 18,613,329 of the 36,704,156 votes cast (or 50.71 per cent), Qalibaf 6,077,292 votes to take second place (16.56%) and the remorselessly uncharismatic Jalili, in third with 3,163,211 votes.
So what does this mean for Iran? Rowhani is not the reformist that some of the more excitable sections of the media would have us believe. He is a cleric loyal to the values of the Islamic Republic and personally close to Khamenei himself. But he does undoubtedly represent a clear break from eight of years of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s economic incompetence and inflammatory (not to say foolish) diplomacy. If the Iranian people were looking to make a judgment on the last eight years of Iran’s political life they have done so; they have picked a man who should bring change – the question is to what degree.
The earliest signs are positive. In winning so clearly – and uncontroversially – Rowhani has a clear mandate – something Ahmadinejad in his second term (when he was fraudulently re-elected) never had. Turnout was estimated at an impressive 72.2 percent of the 50 million eligible voters – indeed, voting was extended by five hours on Friday evening to account for the huge numbers of people desperate to cast their ballot. The news your correspondent hears from Iran is that people are delighted with the outcome, especially in the cities and amongst young, women and middle-class voters.
It is instructive that crowds near Rowhani's headquarters in downtown Tehran chanted "Long live reform, long live Rowhani." While he has always been more of a moderate than a reformer, it is worth remembering that 2009’s defeated presidential candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi – a former Prime Minister and favourite of the Islamic Republic’s founder, Ayatollah Khomeini – was even less moderately inclined than Rowhani. But he was transformed from perhaps the very definition of a regime man to an outspoken critic of the Islamic Republic’s entire system of governance, seemingly in the space of a few months. People change.
Examining his last week of campaigning is also instructive and, hopefully, prophetic. In what must be seen as a bold move to garner the reformist vote, Rowhani vowed to enhance personal freedoms and gender equality for ordinary Iranians and, most critically, to try and improve Iran’s international standing, which after eight years of Ahmadinejad is at its lowest point than at any time since the 1979-1980 hostage crisis.