Saturday, June 18, 2005

Haaretz - "I picked Ahmadinejad to slap America in the face," said Mahdi Mirmalek

Haaretz - Israel News - Iran to hold first-ever run-off election in its history: "
Last update - 07:54 18/06/2005

Iran to hold first-ever run-off election in its history

By Agencies and Haaretz Service

Iran will have its first runoff presidential election in its history as a key government official says Saturday the favorite candidate Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani wouldn't win enough votes for outright victory.

With three-quarters of the votes counted from Friday's presidential contest, Rafsanjani was in a dead heat race reformist Mahmoud Ahmadinejad according to results published by The Guardian Council supervisory body, quoted by state radio.

An interior ministry official involved in the counting told The Associated Press that the vote count he had seen made it impossible for any one candidate to collect the required 50 percent plus one to win. A second round of voting would take place on June 24, he said.

After a count of 24 million votes out of the expected total of 32 million, Rafsanjani lead by a slight margin of just over one percent, with 18.37 percent of votes counted, followed by Ahmadinejad who won 17.24 percent.

Another candidate, Mahdi Karroubi, former Parliament speaker but a close ally of Iran's Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenie, won 15.22 percent of vote, dropping from a lead of 22 percent at the count of a third of cast votes.

The elections Friday gave a resounding rejection to a youth-led boycott - with lines of voters forced polling to continue four hours overtime - and revealed chinks in the conservatives' armor.

Polls hadn't been closed for more than one hour when the Interior Ministry spokesman Johanbakhsh Khanjani announced voter turnout in some provinces had exceeded 80 percent. In others it varied between 65 and 80 percent. Deputy Interior Minister Morteza Moballegh said a final result should be announced Saturday at 8 p.m. local time, the official Islamic Republic News Agency reported.

Rafsanjani won his home province of Kerman taking 45 percent of the vote, provincial election official Rasoul Moazemi told The Associated Press.

Even Rafsanjani's son Mahdi, who has been working on the campaign, told The AP that his father couldn't get the 50 percent of the popular vote he would need to avoid a run off on June 24.

Rafsanjani, who was president between 1989 and 1997, had been the front runner throughout the campaign. "It appears that Rafsanjani can't get enough votes to win an outright victory," his son Mahdi told the AP, citing early reports from outlying areas.

There are 30 provinces in Iran and 46.7 million eligible voters, millions of them living overseas.

Votes from the heavier populated regions, like Tehran which has a population of 10.3 million, would be among the last to be tallied.

A pragmatist, Rafsanjani portrayed himself as a steady hand at the helm, able to navigate Iran through the treacherous days ahead, fraught with uncertainty over the nuclear program, relations with the United States, and neighboring Iraq.

The big question would seem to be who would be the other run-off contender: Mostafa Moin, who represents the stumbling reform movement of outgoing President Mohammad Khatami, or one of the hard-line conservative candidates, possibly Tehran's conservative mayor, Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, or Khomeinei's ally, Karroubi.

The high voter turnout could work in Moin's favor, the reformist who was initially barred from contesting the election by the powerful Guardian Council of clerics. But the council was forced to reconsider after threats of a boycott.

Young vote worries establishment
The election also revealed divisions within Iran's conservative political circles. It was only in the 11th hour of the campaign that Mohsen Rezaei, one of the four hard-liners in the running, dropped out of the race to try to consolidate votes behind a single candidate. There had been considerable speculation that the conservatives would close ranks behind one candidate rather than split the vote but Rezaei's fellow hard-liners stayed in the race.

But the real worry for the establishment is the vast pool of young Iranians. More than half of Iran's 70 million people are under 25 years old, and many were voting in their first presidential elections. Their expectations for more of the openness introduced by Khatami can only grow.

"They cannot make us go backward," said 19-year-old Mohammad Reza Baradaran. "We've tasted a bit of freedom now."

Ahmadinejad is loyal to Iran's Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who bristled at remarks from U.S. President George W. Bush criticizing the elections as a ploy to keep power in the hands of the clerics.

"I picked Ahmadinejad to slap America in the face," said Mahdi Mirmalek after attending Friday prayers at Tehran University. Religious conservatives like Mirmalek are upset about the liberal trends among the country's young.

"Many Iranians sacrificed their blood to preserve the rule of Islam and not allow women appear heavily made up in public with their hair out of headscarf. Ahmadinejad is the answer," said Jamal Ataei, another member of the congregation.

Ahmadinejad has strong support among mosque-goers, who surprisingly are numbered only in the thousands in Tehran, a city of 10 million, because many Iranians prefer private prayers.

At Tehran University, the leader of Friday prayers, Ayatollah Mohammad Emami Kashani, told worshippers that voting "strengthens the pillars of the ruling Islamic establishment." Followers then joined in with the common chant of "Death to America!"

The United States accuses Iran of using nuclear technology as a cover to develop atomic arms. Iran denies the claims and insists it aims only for electricity-producing reactors. Iran has suspended uranium-enrichment work during ongoing talks with European envoys to seek a compromise and avoid possible UN sanctions.

Iran's top security official, Hasan Rowhani, told reporters that Iran needs a "powerful and experienced" president to handle nuclear talks - an apparent plug for his ally Rafsanjani.

Iran and the United States have had no diplomatic ties since 1979 when Iranian militants stormed the U.S. Embassy and kept 52 Americans hostage for 444 days."