Hardline judiciary head Ebrahim Raisi wins Iran presidency following low election turnout

Iran's hardline chief justice won a landslide victory on Saturday in the country's presidential election, a vote that both propelled the supreme leader's protégé into Tehran's highest civilian position and saw the lowest turnout in the Islamic Republic's history.

Only 28.9 million of more than 59 million eligible voters cast ballots in election

Ebrahim Raisi waves to the media after casting his vote at a polling station in Tehran on Friday. The hardline chief justice has won the country's presidential election in a landslide victory. (Ebrahim Noroozi/The Associated Press)

Iran's hardline chief justice won a landslide victory on Saturday in the country's presidential election, a vote that both propelled Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's protégé into Tehran's highest civilian position and saw the lowest turnout in the Islamic Republic's history.

The election of Ebrahim Raisi, already sanctioned by the United States in part over his involvement in the mass execution of thousands of political prisoners in 1988, became more of a coronation after his strongest competition found themselves disqualified from running.

That sparked calls for a boycott, and many people apparently decided to stay home — with only 28.9 million voting out of more than 59 million people eligible to cast ballots.

Of those who voted, some 3.7 million people either accidentally or intentionally voided their ballots, far beyond the amount seen in previous elections — suggesting some of those voters wanted none of the four candidates as their leader.

Iranian journalists follow the results of the presidential election from a press room in Tehran on Saturday. (Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images)

Iranian state television immediately blamed the low participation rate on the coronavirus pandemic and U.S. sanctions. But the low turnout and voided ballots suggested a wider unhappiness with the tightly controlled election, as activists criticized Raisi's ascension.

"That Ebrahim Raisi has risen to the presidency instead of being investigated for the crimes against humanity of murder, enforced disappearance and torture is a grim reminder that impunity reigns supreme in Iran," Amnesty International secretary general Agnès Callamard said.

Raisi nets nearly 62 per cent of votes

In official results, Raisi won 17.9 million votes overall, nearly 62 per cent of the total cast. Had the voided ballots gone to a different candidate, that person would have come in second place. Following Raisi was former hardline Revolutionary Guard commander Mohsen Rezaei with 3.4 million votes.

Former Central Bank chief Abdolnasser Hemmati, a moderate viewed as a stand-in for outgoing President Hassan Rouhani in the election, came in third with 2.4 million votes. Amirhossein Ghazizadeh Hashemi was last with just under one million votes.

In this photo released by the official website of the office of the Iranian Presidency, President Hassan Rouhani, left, speaks with the media after his meeting with president-elect Raisi, right, in Tehran on Saturday. (Iranian Presidency Office/The Associated Press)

Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli, who provided the results, did not explain the high number of voided ballots. Elections in 2017 and 2012 saw some 1.2 million voided ballots apiece. Iran does not allow international election observers to monitor its polls.

While Iran does not have mandatory voting, those casting ballots do receive stamps on their birth certificates showing they voted. Some worry that could affect their ability to apply for jobs and scholarships, or to hold onto their positions in the government or the security forces.

Reaction from abroad

Hemmati, like the three other candidates, conceded even before the results were released.

"I hope your administration provides causes for pride for the Islamic Republic of Iran, improves the economy and life with comfort and welfare for the great nation of Iran," he wrote on Instagram.

A supporter of Iranian president-elect Ebrahim Raisi checks his phone at one of his campaign offices in downtown Tehran on Saturday. (Morteza Nikoubazl/AFP/Getty Images)

Abroad, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad immediately congratulated Raisi for his win. Iran has been instrumental in seeing al-Assad hold onto the presidency amid his country's decade-long grinding war.

Separate congratulations came from Dubai's ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, who also serves as the vice-president and prime minister of the hereditarily ruled United Arab Emirates. The U.A.E. has been trying to de-escalate tensions with Iran since a series of attacks on shipping off its coast in 2019 that the U.S. Navy blamed on Iran.

Also congratulating Raisi was Oman, which has served as an interlocutor between Tehran and the West.

Rouhani, who in 2017 dismissed Raisi as an opponent in his re-election as someone only knowing about "executions and imprisoning" people, met the cleric on Saturday and congratulated him.

"I hope I can respond well to the people's confidence, vote and kindness during my term," Raisi said.

Voters cast their ballots at a polling station in Tehran on Friday. The election appeared to have a low turnout fuelled by apathy and calls for a boycott. (Vahid Salemi/The Associated Press)

Since the 1979 Islamic Revolution that overthrew the shah, Iran's theocracy has cited voter turnout as a sign of its legitimacy beginning with its first referendum, when 98.2 per cent voted in favour of an Islamic Republic.

Some, including former hardline president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, called for a boycott of this election, something anathema in the country. Semi-official media put Ahmadinejad in a graphic alongside Iran's enemies.

A constitutional panel under Khamenei disqualified reformists and those backing Rouhani, whose administration both reached the 2015 nuclear deal with world powers and saw it disintegrate three years later with then-U.S. president Donald Trump's unilateral withdrawal of America from the accord.

Women are seen lining up to vote in the presidential election at a polling station in Tehran on Friday. (Ebrahim Noroozi/The Associated Press)

Raisi's election puts hardliners firmly in control across the Iranian government as negotiations in Vienna continue to try to save a tattered deal meant to limit Iran's nuclear program.

Iranian presidents have almost all served two four-year terms. That means Raisi could be at the helm during what could be one of the most crucial moments for the country in decades: the death of the 82-year-old Khamenei.

Speculation has already begun that Raisi might be a contender for the position, along with Khamenei's son, Mojtaba.