TEHRAN — In a striking repudiation of the ultraconservatives who wield power in Iran, voters Saturday overwhelmingly elected a mild-mannered cleric seeking greater personal freedoms and a more conciliatory approach to the world.
Iranian state television reported Saturday that Hassan Rowhani, 64, had more than 50 percent of the vote, enough to avoid a runoff in the race to replace the departing president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose tenure was defined largely by provocation with the West and a seriously hobbled economy at home.
The hard-line conservatives aligned with the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, placed at the back of the pack of six candidates, indicating that Iranians were looking to their next president to change the tone, if not the direction, of the nation, by choosing a cleric who served as the lead nuclear negotiator under an earlier reformist president, Mohammad Khatami.
During the Khatami era, Iran froze its nuclear program, eased social restrictions, and promoted dialogue with the West. But this election, which electrified a nation that had lost faith in its electoral process, also served the supreme leader’s goal, instilling at least a patina of legitimacy back into the theocratic state, providing a safety valve for a public distressed by years of economic malaise and isolation, and returning a cleric to the presidency.
Ahmadinejad was the first noncleric to hold the presidency, and often clashed with the religious order and its traditionalist allies.
Rowhani has also been a strong supporter of the nuclear program, and while he is expected to tone down the tough language, he also once boasted that during the period Iran had suspended enrichment, it made its greatest nuclear advances because the pressure was off.
In the Iranian system, the supreme leader holds ultimate power, presiding over the state with ultimate religious and civic authority. He has final say on all matters, but still needs to build consensus within the narrow world of Iran’s political, security, and business elite.
The president has some control over the economy — the public’s primary concern — and through the bully pulpit of the office he can set the tone of public debate on a wide variety of issues, including the restrictions on young people socializing and the nuclear program.
The election results put the supreme leader under pressure to allow changes in the country to take place, or allow him to make the kind of changes that might be opposed by hard-liners if they controlled all the levers of power.
The ayatollah himself had exhorted Iranians to exercise their right to vote. Analysts are predicting at least some change. “There will be moderation in domestic and foreign policy under Mr. Rowhani,” said Saeed Laylaz, an economist and columnist close to the reformist current of thinking.
“First we need to form a centrist and moderate government, reconcile domestic disputes, then he can make changes in our foreign policy,” said Laylaz, who, in a sign of confidence, agreed to be quoted by name
Using a key as his campaign symbol, Rowhani focused on issues important to the young, including unemployment and international isolation.
“Let’s end extremism,” Rowhani said during a campaign speech. “We have no other option than moderation.”
He criticized the much-hated morality police officers who arrest women for not having proper headscarves and coats. He called for the lifting of restrictions on the Internet. He said that “in consensus with higher officials” political prisoners would be freed.
At the time his campaign words sounded like empty promises to many potential voters, who pointed out that Rowhani did not enjoy the support of those in power.
But support from two former presidents, Khatami and Ali Akbar Rafsanjani, himself disqualified from participating, lifted Rowhani’s status, helping him to tap into the votes of millions of dissatisfied Iranians.
His appeal to the younger generation was crucial in a nation where there is an increasing divide between the millions of youths — two-thirds of the 70 million population are under 35 — and the ruling hard-liners who use morality police, Internet blocking and other harsh measures to try to mold those born after the revolution.
Many Iranians were disillusioned with their system after the 2009 election, when millions took to the streets because they felt the election had been rigged to allow Ahmadinejad to return to office.
The government dispatched security forces to silence the opposition and placed the leadership of the so-called Green Movement under house arrest for years.
But within the circumscribed world of Iranian politics, the public looked to the vote as a chance to push back.
When Fatemeh, 58, took a seat in the women’s compartment of the Tehran subway Saturday, she did what she always did, discreetly listening to those around her.
Now, to her surprise, Rowhani had won. “They were all shocked, like me,” she said. “It is unbelievable, have the people really won?”