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UPDATE 5-Judge under US sanctions set to win presidency for Iran's hardliners

·4 min read

* Opposition calls for boycott

* Supreme Leader Khamenei urges big turnout

* U.S. oil, financial sanctions worsen economic pain

* Raisi accused over executions of political prisoners

* Cleric has never addressed allegations publicly (Adds detail on president's role, paras 4, 16)

By Parisa Hafezi

DUBAI, June 18 (Reuters) - Iranians voted on Friday in an election expected to hand the presidency to a hardline judge subject to U.S. sanctions, though many are likely to ignore the ballot amid economic hardship and calls for a boycott by critics at home and abroad.

With uncertainty surrounding Iran's efforts to revive its 2015 nuclear deal, the turnout is being viewed by analysts as a referendum on the leadership's handling of an array of crises.

After voting in the capital Tehran, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei urged Iranians to cast ballots, saying "each vote counts ... come and vote and choose your president".

Hardliner Ebrahim Raisi, 60, is the favourite to succeed Hassan Rouhani, a pragmatist prevented under the constitution from serving a third four-year term in the post, which runs the government day-to-day and reports to the supreme leader.

A close Khamenei ally and like him a harsh critic of the West, Raisi is under U.S. sanctions for alleged involvement in executions of political prisoners decades ago.

"If elected, Raisi will be the first Iranian president in recent memory to have not only been sanctioned before he has taken office, but potentially sanctioned while being in office," said analyst Jason Brodsky.

While hundreds of Iranians, including relatives of dissidents killed since Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution and political prisoners, have called for an election boycott, the establishment’s religiously devout core supporters are expected to vote for Raisi.

"I will vote (out of respect) for martyrs," a young man told state TV, referring to Iranians killed by the country's enemies.

State television showed long queues outside polling stations in several cities. More than 59 million Iranians are eligible to vote. Polls will close at 1930 GMT but can be extended for two hours. The results are expected around midday on Saturday.

"My vote is a big NO to the Islamic Republic," said Farzaneh, 58, from the central city of Yazd. She said contrary to what state TV reported, "the polling stations are almost empty here".

DEMISE OF THE PRAGMATISTS

A win for Raisi would confirm the political demise of pragmatist politicians like Rouhani, weakened by the U.S. decision to quit the nuclear deal and reimpose sanctions in a move that stifled rapprochement with the West.

The reimposed curbs slashed oil exports from 2.8 million barrels per day in 2018 to as low as an estimated 200,000 bpd in some months of 2020, although volumes have crept up since then. The rial currency has tumbled 70% in value since 2018.

Under pressure over rising inflation and joblessness, at about 39% and 11% respectively, the clerical leadership needs a high vote count to boost its legitimacy, damaged after a series of protests against poverty and political curbs since 2017.

"I wish we didn’t have any of those problems since the registration day," said Rouhani after casting his vote, a clear reference to a hardline election body's rejection from the race of several prominent moderate and conservative candidates.

Official opinion polls suggest turnout could be as low as 44%, significantly lower than the 73.3% seen in 2017. Since 1980, the highest turnout in presidential elections was 85.2% in 2009 and the lowest was 50.6% in 1993.

Khamenei, not the president, has the last say on Iran’s nuclear and foreign policies, therefore a Raisi win would not disrupt Iran's bid to revive the agreement and break free of tough oil and financial sanctions.

ECONOMIC MISERY

With economic misery palpable at home, Iran's rulers cannot risk starting the talks from scratch after the election, as the ruling clerics are aware their political fortunes rely on tackling worsening economic hardship.

"Eruption of protests will be inevitable if he fails to heal the nation's economic pain," a government official said, referring to Raisi.

Raisi's record as a hardline judge accused of abuses could worry Washington and liberal Iranians, analysts said, especially given President Joe Biden's focus on human rights globally.

A mid-ranking figure in the hierarchy of Iran’s Shi’ite Muslim clergy, Raisi was appointed by Khamenei to the high-profile job of judiciary chief in 2019.

A few months later, Washington sanctioned him for alleged human rights violations, including the executions of political prisoners in 1980s and the suppression of unrest in 2009, events in which he played a part, according to human rights groups.

Iran has never acknowledged the mass executions, and Raisi himself has never publicly addressed allegations about his role.

Raisi's main rival is former central bank governor Abdolnaser Hemmati, who says a win for any hardliner will result in yet more sanctions imposed by outside powers.

Raisi says he backs Iran's talks with major powers to revive the nuclear deal, under which Iran agreed to curbs on its nuclear programme in return for the lifting of sanctions. (Writing by Parisa Hafezi, Editing by William Maclean)

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