TEHRAN —After a larger than expected voter turnout for Friday’s election, early returns indicate a strong showing by the most moderate of the six candidates running for president of Iran.
Hassan Rouhani, the only cleric in the race, had more than 49 percent of the votes cast in more than 5,800 polling stations — about 10 percent of the total vote — whose results were announced early Saturday. The mayor of Tehran, Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, was polling a distant second with less than 17 percent.
If no candidate wins a clear majority, a runoff will be held. Should Rouhani win with a clear majority in the first round of voting, it would deal a surprising blow to conservatives who have dominated Iranian politics for the past eight years.
A push by authorities for widespread participation in the election appeared to have been successful, as a steady flow of voters at polling stations prompted officials to extend voting hours four times, from the customary 6 p.m. ending time to 11 p.m.
With temperatures reaching 95 degrees, many Iranians waited until after sundown to cast their ballots. If people had arrived at the polls by 11 p.m., they were being allowed to vote.
An experienced polling officer at a voting station in central Tehran said that it was unlikely results would come until Saturday morning and that even then, a runoff was likely. There are no exit polls in Iran, and the results will not be announced until all votes have been counted.
Four years after contested ballot results that led to months of unrest here, authorities went to great lengths to minimize public campaign events. But they still urged all Iranians to come out to vote, and citizens of the Islamic republic appeared to be doing so.
Iranian state television ran uninterrupted election coverage throughout the day, showing live feeds of long lines at polling stations across the country and interviewing voters.
One young man who was interviewed, Reza Malek Hagghighapour, held up his Iranian identity card, issued by the Iranian
interests section of the Pakistani Embassy in Washington. “My
father is Iranian and my mother
is American,” he said. “I came to Iran specifically to vote in this election, because I consider myself Iranian.”
Others with long involvement in the Islamic republic’s tumultuous political history also came out to cast their votes.
“The democratic process is a long road. Every bit will count,” said Ebrahim Yazdi, 82, a former foreign minister and leading activist who stood in line at the Hosseinieh Ershad mosque in central Tehran to cast a ballot. “We have to take the opportunities to advance the democratic process, and voting is one major part of that.”
Yazdi, who has been arrested twice since the 2009 protests, said he was told by authorities not to publicly endorse or oppose any candidate. He said he considers voting his solemn responsibility. “Always, I am hopeful,” he said.
After some leading reformists were barred from running and other candidates dropped out, Iranians were choosing from among six presidential contenders. They are nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili, widely seen as the most hard-line ideologically; Rouhani, a cleric and relative moderate who pledged to create a new Ministry of Women if elected; Ghalibaf; former foreign minister Ali Akbar Velayati; Mohsen Rezaei, longtime commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps; and Mohammad Gharazi, a former head of the Ministry of Post, Telegraph and Communications.
At the Imamzadeh Saleh mosque in the commercial district of Tajrish in Tehran’s north, long lines to vote extended into the adjoining bazaar. Two men in their 20s discussed whom they planned to support.
“I’m voting for Rouhani, because he knows the languages of the world, which made him more successful in negotiations,” said one.
“Open your eyes,” his friend told him. “Everything we have now is because of Jalili and his courage.”
Rouhani’s prospects improved when Jalili, Ghalibaf and Velayati all stayed in the race, threatening to split the conservative vote. Once Rouhani was seen as having a chance of winning, many urban and educated Iranians who might not otherwise have voted went to the polls Friday.
“I was planning to vote for Ghalibaf, but now I see that Rouhani has a lot of support,” said Jaffar, a 30-year-old Web designer. “I will vote for one of them, because I want to reduce Jalili’s chances.”
Also potentially boosting voter turnout, local council elections are being held on the same day as the presidential vote for the first time. In rural areas, the local elections are considered especially important and always attract high participation.
Ghalibaf, who was leading in a recent poll, is seen as a technocrat who has improved public transportation, created many green spaces and implemented several information technology initiatives. One of his slogans is: “I built Tehran, now let’s build Iran.”
Rouhani, although a cleric, has the backing of reformists and moderates, including former presidents Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami.
Jalili, at 47 the youngest candidate in the race, promotes a platform based on “resistance” to Western pressures. Such resistance thus far has led to little progress in nuclear negotiations with world powers, a weakness referred to repeatedly by his rivals in the campaign.
Security throughout Tehran was high as the polls opened, with police stationed every few hundred yards and watching over major city squares, and armed military conscripts guarding the entrance of polling stations. Despite the heavy security presence, or perhaps because of it, the atmosphere was calm.
Voting got underway early with what is arguably Iran’s most influential vote, that of its supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Khamenei cast his ballot in a brief early-morning appearance at a mosque inside his heavily secured central Tehran compound, offering no hints about which candidate he hopes will succeed controversial President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
“Until now, I haven’t told anyone who I voted for. Not even the people closest to me. Not my family and not my children. They are not aware who I voted for,” Khamenei said.
All six presidential candidates are considered to be loyal to Khamenei, but there are variations in their plans for domestic and foreign policy, especially in terms of their proposed handling of nuclear negotiations with global powers and potential relations with the United States.
Khamenei, however, dismissed the importance of the U.S. view on Iranian domestic politics.
“I heard recently that someone in America’s National Security Council said that we don’t accept Iran’s elections,” Khamenei said, an apparent reference to a comment by Secretary of State John F. Kerry. Kerry said last month that he did not expect the elections to “change the fundamental calculus” of Iran’s nuclear policies, which he said are controlled by Khamenei, and not the president.
“To hell with those who don’t accept it,” said Khamenei.