Iranians headed to polls yesterday after three weeks of mass rallies, a series of fiery television debates and mudslinging among the four presidential candidates.
With the interior ministry predicting record voter turnout, the poll has emerged as a tense race between incumbent hardliner Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his main challenger, moderate Mir Hossein Mousavi, who is seeking a comeback after two decades in the political wilderness.
The two other candidates are reformist former parliament speaker Mehdi Karroubi and the former head of the elite Revolutionary Guards Corps, Mohsen Rezai.
Polls opened at 8am yesterday and may continue until midnight depending on turnout, election officials said.
Campaigning, which began on May 22, saw Iranians pour into streets and party until dawn in support of their favorite candidates, mainly Mousavi and Ahmadinejad.
This year’s campaign has been almost unprecedented in its ferocity, with candidates hurling insults and allegations of lying and corruption at each other on prime time television.
Observers say the level of mudslinging has never been seen before in the Islamic republic.
“One thing is clear. Iran will never have television debates involving presidential candidates in the future. They just did not handle it with maturity,” one foreign diplomat based in Tehran said.
Surveys showed that the three challengers were more likely to benefit from protest votes against Ahmadinejad rather than votes in their favor.
“The sympathies and antipathies for and against the president will have a bigger impact on the election outcome than the programs of the three rival candidates,” an election observer said.
The interior ministry predicted a record turnout in the 30-year history of the Islamic republic, with 46.2 million Iranians over the age of 18 eligible to vote. Both the presidential and the opposition camps hope to benefit from the high turnout.
It was widely expected that Iranians who oppose the prevailing Islamic system but who have so far avoided elections would vote this time.
Ahmadinejad claims that his government has returned “dignity and pride” to the Iranian nation and vows to continue this trend in the next four years.
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