Conservative lawmaker Alireza Zakani, reformist Mohsen Mehralizadeh and ultraconservative Saeed Jalili, have withdrawn from Iran’s presidential race on the last day of campaigning, leaving only four contenders for Friday’s vote.
Iran’s presidential contest is heading toward a showdown between the country’s hard-line judiciary chief and moderate former Central Bank chief, as three candidates drop out on the last day of campaigning to clear a path for the challengers.
Ultraconservative lawmaker Alireza Zakani withdrew in the morning, hours after reformist Mohsen Mehralizadeh had also thrown in the towel ahead of Friday's vote, Iranian media reported.
In the afternoon another ultraconservative, Saeed Jalili, also pulled out. "A significant part of society has favoured my dear brother" Raisi, Jalili said, and urged his backers to vote for the cleric.
That leaves four hopefuls in the race, out of whom the ultraconservative judiciary chief Raisi, 60, is seen as the clear favourite after other prominent politicians were barred from running.
Such dropouts are common in Iranian presidential elections in order to boost the chances of similar candidates.
The departure of 64-year-old Mehralizadeh, who served as governor in two Iranian provinces, is aimed at consolidating support for top banker Abdolnasser Hemmati, who has positioned himself as a leading moderate and stand-in for President Hassan Rouhani, who is term-limited from running again.
Polling and analysts indicate Hemmati lags behind hard-line judiciary chief Ebrahim Raisi, the presumed front-runner long cultivated by Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Also ending his campaign, Zakani, a 55-year-old hard-line lawmaker twice rejected from running for president, threw his support behind Raisi.
“I consider him (Raisi) to be the most qualified,” Zakani was quoted as saying by state TV. Other candidates were expected to follow suit later on Wednesday. Over 200 lawmakers in parliament, which is dominated by hard-liners, released a statement urging the rest of the conservative candidates to withdraw and back Raisi's presidential bid.
Mehralizadeh, the pro-reform candidate, had previously served as vice president in charge of physical education under reformist President Mohammad Khatami and as a deputy in the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, which runs the country’s civilian nuclear program. He came in last place in Iran’s 2005 election, but found himself barred from running in 2015.
Hard-liner Zakani heads the parliament's research centre. As a lawmaker, he became known for his outspoken opposition to Tehran's 2015 nuclear deal with world powers. Starting in the late 1990s, he served as head of students’ Basij organisation, affiliated with the powerful paramilitary Revolutionary Guard.
As the field narrowed on Wednesday and Hemmati sought to rally the pro-reform vote, he announced that he'd select current Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif to join his administration as either vice president or foreign minister, embracing the top diplomat who was an architect of Tehran's now-tattered nuclear deal.
“The economic development of Iran is not possible without strong diplomatic engagement abroad," Hemmati wrote on Twitter to explain his choice of Zarif. “My administration is after the removal of sanctions and use of foreign policy to achieve political development.”
Zarif, among the best-known political figures in the Rouhani administration, has come under fire from the political establishment in recent weeks after the leak of a contentious audiotape in which he offered a blunt appraisal of power struggles in the Islamic Republic.
There was no immediate word from Zarif on Hemmati's announcement, but the minister has previously indicated a willingness to join the incoming administration.
Within Iran, candidates exist on a political spectrum that broadly includes hard-liners who want to expand Iran’s nuclear program and confront the world, moderates who hold onto the status quo and reformists who want to change the theocracy from within.
Although a range of prominent reformists and key Rouhani allies registered to run for president, Iran's clerical vetting body allowed just several low-profile candidates, mostly hard-liners, to run against Raisi. Owing in part to the disqualifications as well as the raging coronavirus pandemic, voter apathy runs deep. The state-linked Iranian Student Polling Agency has most recently projected a 42 percent turnout from the country’s 59 million eligible voters, which would be a historic low amid mounting calls for a boycott.
Rouhani, who had publicly protested the Guardian Council's rejection of high-profile nominees, pleaded with the Iranian public to vote nonetheless.
“The way of expressing our complaints is not turning our backs on ballot boxes. ... Some may say that the situation has become so tough for us. I tell them to cast their votes despite the troubles," he said. “Going to polling stations in present circumstances will consolidate your system and makes us more powerful.”