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Women at the polls at a mosque south of Tehran. Authorities have extended polling by four hours today 17 June 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Voting continues in Iran to elect a new president from among seven registered candidates as authorities announced another extension of polling hours tonight amid what one official described as a "massive" turnout, Radio Farda and other media reported.

Polling stations have been kept open longer than scheduled, and are currently slated to close at 11 p.m. local time (1830 GMT), according to Radio Farda sources.

The front-runner in many polls ahead of the voting, former President Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani was leading in big cities, according to "Sharq" newspaper's website, while reformist former Education Minister Mostafa Moin was reportedly doing well in Sunni regions. Those two candidates were reportedly leading in Khorasan Razavi, Isfahan, and Ardabil provinces, according to "Sharq," which reported that Moin was also doing well in Gilan Province.

Interior Minister Abdolvahed Moussavi-Lari described the balloting as "very close" and predicted that no candidate would receive the majority required to avoid a runoff vote. Some sources quoted him saying the runoff looked likely between Hashemi-Rafsanjani and Moin.

Polling stations in the city of Arak and in many other locations ran out of ballot papers, Fars News Agency reported.

Radio Farda reported that voter turnout in Tehran has been low, except in polling places frequented by celebrities, such as actors and athletes. Turnout in southwestern Khuzestan Province, which was the site of bombings on 12 June and ethnic unrest in mid-April, has been low, too, a local source told Radio Farda.

Turnout in Kerman varied on the basis of daily temperatures, Radio Farda reported, with voters preferring the cooler hours of the day. In Kurdistan, Masud Kurdpur told Radio Farda, the security presence is noticeable, likely because of unrest in Mahabad earlier in the week. In Mashhad, a source estimated turnout to be in the 60-65 percent range.

Iranian Interior Minister Abdolvahed Musavi-Lari has told AFP that turnout appears to be strong, however. (To see turnout figures for the country's eight previous presidential elections, click here.)

Three-Man Race?

Former President Hashemi-Rafsanjani is widely seen as the favorite.

But recent informal polls suggested he was facing strong challenges from Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, a former national police chief, and Moin.

Voters are choosing a replacement for outgoing President Mohammad Khatami, who cannot seek a third four-year term under the Iranian Constitution. Some activists have called on the public to stay away from the polls.

"When we come to the ballot box in the framework of the constitution and we vote, we are, indeed, voting for the constitution and the system, regardless of whom we are voting for," Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said on state television after casting his ballot today, Radio Farda reported.

"The propaganda that persuades people not to vote does not come from the West’s democratic camp," Khamenei said. "It comes from a number of our enemies -- those enemies who do not want an Islamic system with a religious identity to be, at the same time, a democratic system."

President Khatami also urged people to vote.

"I hope that with the enthusiastic participation of all women, men, and youngsters and adolescents in the elections, the difficult road to religious democracy, which is the result of the revolution, will be made smoother and easier and the decision of the Iranian nation will be respected by all of us," Khatami said.

If no candidate wins more than 50 percent of the vote, the election will go to a runoff between the top two candidates.

Interior Ministry spokesman Jahanbakhsh Khanjani said today that early election results could be ready as soon as the morning of 18 June, ISNA reported.

(AFP/Reuters)




[For more on Iran's presidential election, see RFE/RL's dedicated Iran Votes 2005 webpage.]
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