TEHRAN: Iran's President Hassan Rouhani on Wednesday called for greater "competition" in an election for his successor next month after several hopefuls were barred from running against ultraconservative candidates.
Rouhani said he had asked the Islamic republic's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to intervene and warned that "the heart of elections is competition. If you take that away it becomes a corpse."
Iran's ultraconservative judiciary chief Ebrahim Raisi is now widely seen as the frontrunner to replace Rouhani, a moderate, after the powerful Guardian Council prevented several prominent figures from standing for election.
Raisi appeared to object to the large number of disqualifications on Tuesday.
"Since yesterday evening, when I was informed of the results, ... I have made contacts and I am holding consultations to make the election scene more competitive and participatory," Raisi said on Twitter.
Seven candidates, five of them ultraconservatives, were approved for the June 18 poll, which comes at a time Iran is in talks with world powers to revive the tattered nuclear deal that former US president Donald Trump withdrew from in 2018.
The Guardian Council disqualified several well-known figures, including long-time parliament speaker Ali Larijani, a moderate-conservative ally of Rouhani who had been seen as the main challenger to Raisi.
The president, speaking at a televised cabinet meeting, also warned of the risk of low voter turnout and said the system's "continued legitimacy" was at stake.
Rouhani, an advocate of detente with the West and of ending Iran's international isolation, won office through an alliance with reformist and moderate forces but must step down this year after serving two consecutive terms.
Iran was plunged into a deep recession after Trump torpedoed Rouhani's signature achievement, the 2015 nuclear deal which offered sanctions relief in return for Iran's pledge never to acquire an atomic weapon.
Negotiations are now underway in Vienna aiming to bring Washington back into the accord, lift punishing sanctions on Iran and get Tehran to reverse the nuclear steps it took in retaliation to the US withdrawal.
The election comes amid a climate of general discontent amid Iran's deep economic and social crisis, and after the violent repression of waves of protests in the winter of 2017-2018 and in November 2019.
For the reformers and moderates who have governed with Rouhani since 2013, the solution to the country's problems lies in the discussions underway in Vienna.
Ultraconservatives and many conservatives meanwhile accuse Rouhani of shirking responsibility by blaming Iran's woes solely on the United States, and on the Europeans for failing to help Tehran counter the devastating effects of US sanctions.
Iran's candidate disqualifications caused dismay in the reformist press.
"Goodbye reformism?" read the front-page headline of a Shargh daily article that said "not even the most sceptical" had imagined the latest development.
It argued that reformists' woes partly stem from the economic crisis hurting their middle class base, which it said now lacks "any energy" to push forward their agenda.
The ultraconservative Kayhan daily meanwhile strongly defended the council's decision on candidates, arguing it was in line with the constitution and "not based on personal preference".
It also said a possible low turnout would be the fault of Rouhani's administration over its handling of the economy.
A record 57 percent of Iranians stayed away from legislative elections in February last year after thousands of candidates, many of them moderates and reformists, were disqualified.
The Guardian Council, the unelected body responsible for overseeing elections, this time selected the seven candidates from a field of about 600 hopefuls.
Rouhani said that, in his request for a revision of the list, "I sent a letter to the supreme leader yesterday on what I had in mind and if he can help with this".
According to Rouhani, the supreme leader has "seldom intervened" during previous elections, but "there have been times when he added someone back in with an order".
This happened in 2005, when he reversed the Guardian Council's decision to bar two reformist figures - Mostafa Moein and Mohsen Mehralizadeh, the latter of whom is also an approved candidate this year.
Larijani, however, has already conceded his disqualification, writing on Twitter that "I am content with God's will".