TEHRAN, Iran -- Centrist Hasan Rowhani won an absolute majority in Iran’s presidential elections, a surprise outcome that could help raise spirits in a population fed up by the economic distress and international isolation that marked the era of outgoing leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
The ministry of the interior said Rowhani, a Shiite Muslim cleric, won some 18.6 million votes, nearly 51 per cent of the vote in a six-man field, three times the tally for runner-up Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf, the mayor of Tehran, who received only 6.1 million. In third place was nuclear arms negotiator Saeed Jalili, who got just 4.1 million votes.
The U.S. government lauded the Iranian people for making a choice amidst heavy government censorship and offered the prospect of direct U.S.-Iran talks on the future of Iran’s nuclear program.
“We respect the vote of the Iranian people and congratulate them for their participation in the political process and their courage in making their voices heard,” White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said in a statement Saturday.
“It is our hope that the Iranian government will heed the will of the Iranian people and make responsible choices that create a better future for all Iranians. The United States 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.”
Voter turnout, 36.7 million, was just under three quarters of the 50.5 million eligible voters, a high figure in view of some public calls for a boycott.
An enormous crowd of chanting and cheering supporters flooded Haft-e-Tir Square in the center of Tehran and Kharim Khan street, where Rowhani’s headquarters were located. Many of them wore purple t-shirts or scarves, the color of his campaign.
Rowhani, a moderate conservative, apparently intends to take on a different color, adopting the green mantle of the reform movement that failed to win the presidency four years ago in an election that many said was marred by massive fraud. On Friday night, he tweeted to followers: "Let’s do something to celebrate success tomorrow; the day that our purple vote gives way to the green.”
While Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Shiite supreme leader, sets all major policy and can block almost any action by the president, Rowhani could have an impact across society and in Iran’s relations with the rest of the world. He has pledged to reverse the damage done during Ahmadinejad’s eight years in office.
Rowhani’s pledges during the campaign to improve the country’s human rights practices won him wide support among young Iranians, who packed his rallies and cheered him like a rock star.
In Mashad, Iran’s second biggest city, the 64-year-old Rowhani Wednesday night pledged before nearly 50,000 people to restore safety and academic freedom to universities, in contrast with Ahmadinejad, who often sent in the police.
“We are talking about running a country, not a police station,” he declared to shouts and chants.
“I promise all of you that the era of extremism will end,” he said.
In a televised debate on social and cultural policy a week before the vote, he called for equal rights for women, freedom of the press, an abandonment of the ban on satellite television receivers, and for the government to remove itself from the arts in general. “If we want to eliminate corruption from the society, we should give freedom to the press,” he said, opening the prospect of a dramatic shift from the present situation in which the media act as the regime’s mouthpiece.