The resounding victory of President Hassan Rouhani , who had sought re-election on a platform of moderation and engagement with the outside world, is a strong endorsement by the Iranian people for political change. He won one of the most polarised elections in Iran’s recent history, one in which the clerical establishment backed a candidate who was running against a sitting President. The hardliners rallied behind Ebrahim Raisi, who challenged Mr. Rouhani’s economic policies, slammed his outreach to the West and even flung corruption allegations against him. Still Mr. Rouhani won 57% of the vote against Mr. Raisi’s 38.5%. In 2013, Mr. Rouhani was an accidental candidate of the moderates. It was a time when the moderate movement had not recovered from the 2009 crackdown by the state apparatus after Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s controversial re-election. Then both the moderates and centrists led by former President Akbar Rafsanjani backed Mr. Rouhani as a consensus candidate. This time there was no Rafsanjani; Mr. Rouhani fought on his own. During the campaign, he assailed Iran’s deep state in a way no sitting President had done. He reached out to women and the ethnic and religious minorities. The numbers suggest a vast majority of Iranians repose great faith in this cleric who promises them hope and change.
Now that he has won, the spotlight turns on the challenges ahead. In the first term, Mr. Rouhani treaded cautiously. His focus was on the nuclear negotiations Iran was undertaking with six world powers and he was averse to upsetting the conservative establishment. His record in offering more civil liberties fell short of expectations as young Iranians are still waiting for meaningful changes in the clergy-defined social order. The reformist politicians who were put under house arrest in 2011 are still not free, and Mr. Rouhani hardly spoke for them during his first term. And unemployment has not eased under his government. Now that the nuclear deal is done and he has a second term, it is time for Mr. Rouhani to act boldly. It is unrealistic to expect radical changes in a society that is tightly controlled by the Ayatollahs. Though the President is the highest elected official of the republic, real powers lie in the hands of the Supreme Leader. Any attempt to introduce rapid changes will meet with strong resistance from the deep state. But Presidents can pursue a gradualist reform agenda with popular support. Over the years, Iranian civil society, working within several constraints, has kept the moderate current that powers this reform agenda alive, in sharp contrast to several other countries in West Asia where elections are a sham and dissent is a crime. Mr. Rouhani’s biggest challenge is to respond to this current constructively, by launching gradual reforms at home that offer more civil liberties and better economic opportunities to the people.