Friday, June 17, 2005 News - International - Rafsanjani is hot tip as Iranians go to the polls News - International - Rafsanjani is hot tip as Iranians go to the polls: "Rafsanjani is hot tip as Iranians go to the polls

IRANIANS go to the polls today to elect a new president, with the moderate cleric Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani favourite to emerge victorious from a field of seven.

However, Mr Rafsanjani, who held the post between 1989 and 1997, is unlikely to secure enough support to avert an unprecedented run-off vote.

Rival campaigners clogged the streets of the capital, Tehran, into the early hours yesterday in a final effort to win over undecided voters. All campaigning had to end 24 hours before the polling stations opened.

The vote could determine the fate of Iran's nuclear stand-off with the West and its ties with the United States, although, whoever wins, real power in the country will still rest with conservative, anti-western religious authorities.

About 300 people protested against the Islamic system in central Tehran, the semi-official ILNA news agency said, adding that some had been arrested as the demonstration was illegal.

Opinion polls indicate that Mr Rafsanjani, 70, who wants better ties with the West, will not win the 50 per cent support he needs to avoid a deciding vote with his nearest challenger, possibly next Friday.

The reformist newspaper Etemad said: "The election ... is one of the most unpredictable in the history of the Islamic Republic of Iran. All pundits believe that the president will be elected in the second round."

Polls show Mr Rafsanjani's main rivals are the conservative former police chief Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf and the reformist Mostafa Moin, an education minister under the outgoing president Mohammad Khatami, who is not allowed to stand for a third four-year term. Some polls have also shown the conservative Tehran mayor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, gaining ground.

Mohammad Reza Khatami, an aide to Mr Moin said: "There is very close rivalry between Moin and Rafsanjani, and also Qalibaf is not in a bad situation."

Analysts say a victory for Mr Moin cannot be ruled out and the outcome of a run-off between Mr Rafsanjani and Mr Moin or Mr Qalibaf would be hard to predict.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader, who has the last word in matters of state in Iran's hybrid theocracy, has called for a high turnout to make Iran "immune to the enemies' plots".

Abdolvahed Mousavi-Lari, the interior minister, said he expected a turnout of more than half the 47 million eligible voters, aged 15 and over.

On the streets of Tehran, Mohsen Mahmoudi, 22, was busy putting up campaign stickers early yesterday. "I came to campaign for Hashemi [Rafsanjani], to say that he has a heart of gold," he said.

Some young "campaigners" admitted they had only come out on to the streets to enjoy a rare chance to party and mingle openly with the opposite sex. Several said they would not vote in an election where most of the more than 1,000 hopefuls who registered to run were barred by the hardline Guardian Council supervisory body. Eight were originally allowed to run, but one pulled out on Wednesday.

Mr Khatami was elected by landslides in 1997 and 2001 with pledges to create a more free society, but his reforms were repeatedly blocked by hardliners."