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Iran: Voting Under Way In Close Presidential Runoff

Prague, 24 June 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Iranians began voting today in the country's first presidential runoff since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Iranians are choosing their future president between two candidates -- former President Ayatollah Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani and Tehran Mayor Mahmud Ahmadinejad. The vote is expected to be tight. Election results are expected tomorrow.

Rafsanjani is calling on Iranians to vote for him as a vote against extremism. He is promising to deliver economic prosperity and further reforms. Ahmadinejad denies charges that he is an extremist and says he will focus on helping the poor.

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei today urged people to vote en masse in the country's presidential election, Radio Farda reported.

Khamenei expressed confidence that the vote will be fair. He said people should "be patient at the polls" and called on supporters of both candidates to be civilized. "The supporters of the two esteemed candidates should refrain from any acts of aggression against each other," Radio Farda quoted him as saying.

Some 47 million Iranians are eligible to vote. They remain split.

The more liberal middle classes are supporting the pragmatic Rafsanjani, who has promised to continue reforms and to improve ties with the West.

Iran's working classes, religious poor, and hard-liners say they will vote for Ahmadinejad, an ultraconservative who has the image of a hard-working, pious man of humble origins.

Tight Race

Radio Farda reports that the outcome is difficult to predict. Rafsanjani himself said today that the race is "very close." But he said he believes he is "slightly ahead" of Ahmadinejad.

A recently released poll by the Iranian Student Polling Agency (ISPA) shows that the two candidates are locked in a virtual tie -- with 41.9 percent of the vote for Ahmadinejad and 41.5 percent for Rafsanjani. The poll also indicates that turnout will be around 60 percent.

Opinion polls have been unreliable in the past in Iran, however.

Rafsanjani's supporters see him as a force for moderation within the establishment, and more likely to follow a pragmatic line in domestic and foreign policy. They say an Ahmadinejad presidency would roll back the reform process. His critics accuse him of corruption and point to his alleged links to the murder of dissidents both inside and outside Iran.

Ahmadinejad's supporters praise him for living a simple life and being a man of the people with good management skills. They also say he is a true follower of Islamic values. His opponents portray him as an extremist who is in favor of gender segregation and the enforcement of strict Islamic codes.

The Reformist Vote

The presidency is the last stronghold of Iran's reformists. A victory for Ahmadinejad would lead to a total control of Iran's state institutions by hard-liners.

Mehdi Mahdavikia, a journalist in Tehran, says a wide range of intellectuals, activists, and academics are endorsing Rafsanjani.

"Not only the [reformist camp], but also national and national religious groups have expressed support for Mr. Rafsanjani," Mahdavikia said. "Most of their statements say, 'While keeping our critical positions, we support Rafsanjani without demanding any share in the power because in the case of a [victory for Ahmadinejad], not only we will lose the minimum [freedoms] we have, but the country will be in a position where it will face serious international, economic, and cultural threats.'"

'The Taliban Is Coming'

Some citizens who boycotted the 17 June vote have reportedly decided to vote today in an effort to prevent Ahmadinejad from taking office.

But Rafsanjani said today that there would "be no problems for the country" if he loses. He said he would "continue serving the country in another position" if Ahmadinejad wins.

Radio Farda reports that several text messages against Ahmadinejad have been circulating among mobile-telephone users in Tehran. The messages warn that "the Taliban is coming."

Ahmadinejad and his supporters dismiss such accusations as baseless. On 22 June, Ahmadinejad -- a former member of Iran's Islamic Revolution Guard Corps -- denied rumors that he would force women to wear the head-to-toe Islamic covering called a chador. He said Iran's main problems are unemployment and housing, "not what to wear."

"Are hairstyles the real problem of [our youth]? They can cut their hair the way they want," Ahmadinejad said. "It's none of our business. We have to take care of the real problems of the country. The government should put order in the economy and create calm."

Rafsanjani has pledged more personal freedoms for young people, and more jobs. He is also promising unemployment benefits. "Economic issues, including employment and inflation, are very important for people, and also development issues for those who like their country," he said. "People want to be at ease. They don't to be bothered by anyone."

On 21 June, Rafsanjani gained the support of a group of reformist students, who said they will vote for him because they have no other choice.

Any Point In Voting?

Still, some Iranians say they will not vote at all because there is no real choice. Mohammad Maleki is a former head of Tehran's university who believes there is no point in voting under Iran's current establishment.

"They placed Mr. Ahmadinejad against Mr. Rafsanjani to tell people that if Rafsanjani is not elected and Ahmadinejad becomes president, fascism will return," Maleki told Radio Farda. "But we've been facing fascism in our country for the last 24 years. Maybe there are some small differences between the two candidates, but our main problem is the constitution."

On 21 June, Iran's Interior Ministry warned that the presidential runoff is at risk of fraud. During the first round of the vote on 17 June, several candidates alleged that military forces had illegally campaigned in favor of a particular candidate and that money was exchanged.

Iran's powerful Guardians Council, an unelected conservative watchdog, says it found no evidence of fraud.

(Radio Farda contributed to this report.)

See also:

Hashemi-Rafsanjani Says Vote For Him Is Vote Against Extremism

Mahmud Ahmadinejad -- Fascist, Or Man Of The People?

For RFE/RL's full coverage of Iran's elections, see "Iran Votes 2005"
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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL focusing on Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is one of the authors of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.