Margins close in Iranian presidential election


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TEHRAN, Iran -- Iranian voters turned out in huge numbers Friday, a late surge of interest in the presidential vote that seemed to swing the tide in the favor of the most moderate candidates in the field. But it remained to be seen whether any single contestant would exceed the 50 percent threshold needed to avoid a runoff next week.

With long lines at the polls, voting hours were extended by five hours in parts of Tehran and four hours in the rest of the country. Turnout reached 75 percent, by official count, as disaffected members of the Green Movement, which was crushed in the uprising that followed the disputed 2009 presidential election, dropped a threatened boycott and appeared to coalesce behind a cleric, Hassan Rowhani, and Tehran's mayor, Mohammad Baqer Ghalibaf.

The projected outcome seemed to be a repudiation of the coalition of conservative clerics and Revolutionary Guard commanders, the so-called traditionalists, who consolidated power after the 2009 election, which the opposition said was rigged. The traditionalists' favored candidate, Saeed Jalili, Iran's chief nuclear negotiator and a protege of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, did not seem to gain much traction with the public, emphasizing vague concepts such as "Islamic society" and standing up to Western pressure.

Early today, Interior Ministry officials with access to the preliminary tallies said Mr. Rowhani and Mr. Ghalibaf were leading in the polls, with Mr. Rowhani the clear winner in some cities. But there were no announcements, and nothing had been confirmed. At 2 a.m. today, Abbas Ali Kadkhodaei, the Guardian Council's spokesman, warned against publishing any rumors and urged all to wait for the official results.

Nonetheless many veteran Iran political watchers, who had expected a conservative winner in what had been a carefully vetted and controlled campaign, expressed surprise.

"If the reports are true, it tells me that there was a hidden but huge reservoir of reformist energy in Iran that broke loose in a true political wave," said Cliff Kupchan, an Iran analyst for the Eurasia Group, a political risk consulting firm in Washington. "It was unpredictable -- not even tip of the iceberg visible two days or three days ago -- but it seems to have happened."

Farideh Farhi, an Iranian scholar at the University of Hawaii, while careful not to draw conclusions until the official results were known, said it was clear that reformists and other disaffected voters in Iran had summoned energy to mobilize for a heavy turnout, despite their own doubts about the system. "Everyone's assumption was they would not be able to create a wave of voters in the society," Ms. Farhi said. "This outcome was not something planned by Ayatollah Khamenei."

In surveys and interviews throughout the campaign, Iranians have consistently listed as their top priorities the economy, individual rights and the normalization of relations with the rest of the world. They also said they saw the vote as a way to send a message about their displeasure with the direction of the country, which has been hobbled by economic mismanagement and tough Western sanctions, stemming from the government's refusal to stop enriching uranium.

Mr. Rowhani, a former nuclear negotiator, had been criticized by Mr. Jalili for being too willing to bargain away Iran's nuclear program, which the West says is a cover for developing nuclear weapons but Tehran says is for peaceful purposes.

But Mr. Rowhani seemed to strike a more popular chord by promoting more freedom and rights for women, and gained momentum late in the campaign with the withdrawal of the only other candidate with any reformist tendencies and the endorsement of Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, 78, the moderate former president who was disqualified by the Guardian Council, which vets all presidential candidates.

While not claiming victory, Mr. Rowhani's campaign released a statement early this morning in Tehran urging authorities to conduct a clean vote count. "We hope that the respected Guardian Council and the election headquarters of the country will follow the guidelines of the supreme leader regarding protecting the peoples' rights in counting the votes," the statement read.

The closest apparent competitor, Mr. Ghalibaf, is also considered something of a moderate, a strong manager who had improved the quality of life in Tehran in his eight years as mayor. The four remaining candidates, all conservatives, seemed to be trailing badly, informal surveys indicated.

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