Iranians go to polls in huge numbers in presidential vote

McClatchy NewspapersJune 12, 2009 

A woman waits in line to vote at Tehran's Hosseini Ershad Mosque. Officials and voters described a heavy turnout in the country's presidential elections. (McClatchy Newspapers/Warren Strobel)

TEHRAN, Iran — Iranians went to the polls in huge, maybe even record, numbers Friday, choosing between President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and three rivals in a contest that could be a turning point in Iran's 30-year-old Islamic revolution.

Across Tehran, voters and elections officials uniformly described a turnout that dwarfed that of four years ago, with some citizens saying they waited 90 minutes or more to cast their ballots in mosques, schools and other polling places.

While results won't be known until Saturday at the earliest, partisans of lead challenger Mir Hossein Mousavi, a former prime minister, said this week that a high voter turnout would be good news for their candidate.

Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamanei, who is more powerful than the president, cast his vote in front of the cameras early Friday.

"I have just one vote. Nobody knows my vote," Khamanei said, according to state-run television. "Don't pay attention to the rumors," he said, referring to the political intrigue and harsh accusations that marked the campaign. "Just go to the polling stations and cast your ballots."

The election's outcome will not affect the fundamental nature of Iran's theocratic government, but it could determine whether and how the U.S.-Iranian dialogue that President Barack Obama wants will take place, as well as the social climate in this conservative Shi'ite Muslim nation of about 70 million.

"I hope it will be change," said Habibe Abadi, 46, a university employee who said she was voting for the first time in nearly 30 years.

Her choice? "Mousavi. … Only Mousavi." Abadi added, in a refrain familiar to many U.S. voters: "He's not so good. But he's better than the others."

Mousavi is seen as a moderate. Also in the race are former parliament speaker Mehdi Karroubi, a reformist cleric; and conservative Mohsen Rezaie, former commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

But for many Tehranis, the election is a two-man contest between the polarizing Ahmadinejad, and Mousavi, who has promised to enact economic improvements and repair relations with the West, particularly the United States.

There were no immediate reports of disturbances or election-rigging. But Reuters news agency quoted Mousavi as saying some of his representatives had been denied access to polling stations to monitor balloting.

At polling stations across Tehran, men and women waited patiently in separate lines to vote.

The three-week campaign has been unprecedented in Iran's 30-year post-revolutionary history. It sparked a vigorous public debate over the course of the country, frenzied rallies by thousands of young Mousavi supporters who draped themselves in his green campaign colors; and public charges and counter-charges by Iran's ruling politicians.

Ahmadinejad retains strong support among the more staunchly religious, the working class and security services.

In Narmak, an Ahmadinejad stronghold in eastern Tehran, 87-year-old Ahmad Radmadnaesh was asked whether Mousavi would prevail.

"I don't think so," he said, after marking his ballot paper with a pen decorated with the U.S. Stars and Stripes. Radmadnaesh described the crowds of voters as double that of the last presidential election in 2005.

"It doesn't matter for me who wins the election," he said. "They should manage the country properly, that's the point."

A random sampling of other voters at Narmak Mosque turned up none who said they would vote against Ahmadinejad.

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