TEHRAN: Tens of thousands took to the streets of Tehran Saturday evening to celebrate the election of moderate cleric Hassan Rouhani as president, chanting pro-reform slogans and demanding more freedom. Large crowds were converging in main streets and squares, as security forces and police units looked on.
Thousands of cars honked their horns throughout the capital, and many people were dressed in purple, Rouhani’s campaign color. Some even handed out purple balloons to the crowd.
“I see happiness in the city after eight years. I see it on the faces of my people,” said Sahar, 27, a pro-reform university student dressed in a dark manteau, as she marched with a crowd in the center of the city.
“We said no to commander, we said no to mayor, [we chose] the courageous Rouhani,” people chanted.
That was a reference to two defeated candidates, ex-Revolutionary Guard chief Mohsen Rezaei and Tehran Mayor Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, both hailing from the conservative camp.
Ashkan, 31, was holding a poster of Rouhani and wearing a green wristband. Green was the color of the reformist movement, which lost the 2009 presidential election in what many said was a fraudulent victory.
He said the victory against the slate of conservatives could present Iran with “a new era to regain its prestige.”
“Tonight we rejoice as there is once more hope in Iran,” he said, shouting as honking motorbikes drove by.
Saba said she and her friends had rushed to the streets as soon as Interior Minister Mosatafa Mohammad Najjar announced the final results Saturday evening.
“I couldn’t even close my eyes for a second last night. I came to the street as soon as Rouhani was announced the winner,” she said. “This is a step forward. This is a step toward reform.”
People in central Vali-Asr Square chanted slogans in support of Mohammad Reza Aref, the sole reformist candidate whose withdrawal from the race Tuesday brought Rouhani the backing he needed to win.
“Rouhani don’t forget, Aref must be included in the administration,” they said.
More than 70 percent of Iran’s 50.5 eligible voters went to the polls Friday to elect a successor to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, under whose presidency Iran has struggled to shore up an ailing economy targeted by harsh international sanctions.
Rouhani, 64, a moderate sheikh who led talks with world powers over Iran’s nuclear drive under president Mohammad Khatami, has vowed to re-engage the international community and fix the economy.
He entered the race as an underdog, but saw his stock rise following strong performances in live televised debates and Aref dropped his bid at the urging of Khatami.
Rouhani, who also boasts his close relations with pragmatic ex-President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, gained heavy endorsements from reformist figures, including Khatami.
For some Iranians, however, his centrist tendencies take dominance over his pro-reform ones.
“Rouhani’s presidency is the least of our demands. It is only the beginning,” said proud reform supporter Ehsan. “I am so happy that we defeated the hard-liners.”
Ahmadinejad’s disputed re-election in 2009 was followed by massive anti-regime streets demonstrations by the supporters of losing reformist candidates Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi.
Those protests provoked a deadly crackdown by authorities, and led to the detaining of dozens reformist figures and journalists.
Mousavi and Karroubi have been under house arrest since early 2011.
Dozens of people chanted for the release of political prisoners across, with one slogan in particular asking for Mousavi and Karroubi to be freed.
Zahra, a 30-year-old journalist who did not give her last name, said she hoped Rouhani would bring about more freedom for the press.
“The victory of reformists made us all happy. I hope it will lead to a free society as well as more media freedom,” she expounded as she adjusted her chador, a black outfit that covers most of the body worn by women in Iran.
An elderly couple, standing away from the chanting crowd, could not hide their joy.
“All I wanted was to see the youth smile again. The past eight years have withered them,” said the 68-year-old man standing beside his wife, 54, and holding a poster of Rouhani.