TEHRAN: Iranians packed polling stations from boutique-lined streets to conservative bastions Friday with a choice that s left the country divided and on edge: keeping hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in power or electing a reformist who favors greater freedoms and improved ties with the United States.
Crowds formed quickly at many voting sites in areas considered both strongholds for Ahmadinejad and his main rival, reformist Mir Hossein Mousavi, who served as prime minister in the 1980s and has become the surprise hero of a powerful youth-driven movement. At several polling stations in Tehran, mothers held their young children in their arms as they waited in long lines.
I hope to defeat Ahmadinejad today, said Mahnaz Mottaghi, 23, after casting her ballot at a mosque in central Tehran.
Outside the same polling station, 29-year-old Abbas Rezai said he, his wife and his sister-in-law all voted for Ahmadinejad.
We will have him as a president for another term, for sure, he said.
The fiery, month-long campaign unleashed passions that could bring a record turnout. The mass rallies, polished campaign slogans, savvy Internet outreach and televised debates more closely resembled Western elections than the scripted campaigns in most other Middle Eastern countries.
In a sign of the bitter rifts from the campaign, the Interior Ministry – which oversees voting – said all rallies or political gatherings would be banned until after results are announced, which are expected Saturday.
The outcome will not sharply alter Iran s main policies or sway high-level decisions, such as possible talks with Washington. Those crucial policies are all directly controlled by the ruling clerics headed by the unelected Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
But Mousavi has offered hopes of more freedoms at home. If elected, he could try to end crackdowns on liberal media and bloggers and push for Iran to embrace President Barack Obama s offer of dialogue after a nearly 30-year diplomatic freeze. He favors talks with world powers over Iran s nuclear program, which the United States and others fear is aimed at making weapons. Iran says it only seeks reactors for electricity.
Iranians around the world also took part in the vote. In Dubai, home to an estimated 200,000 Iranians, the streets around the polling station at the Iranian consulate were jammed with voters overwhelming favoring Mousavi.
He is our Obama, said Maliki Zadehamid, a 39-year-old exporter.
With the race considered too close to call, a top election official predicted turnout could surpass the nearly 80 percent in elections 12 years ago that brought President Mohammad Khatami to power and began the pro-reform movement. A strong turnout could boost Mousavi. He is counting on under-30s, who account for about a third of Iran s 46.2 million eligible voters.
In Tehran s affluent northern districts – strongly backing Mousavi – voters waited for up to an hour to cast ballots. Mahdi Hosseini, a university student, blasted the firebrand Ahmadinejad for degrading Iran s image in the eyes of the world.
Ahmadinejad brought international condemnation by repeatedly questioning the Holocaust.
In the conservative city of Qom, home to seminaries and shrines, hundreds of clerics and women dressed in long black robes waited to vote in a long line outside a mosque. Ahmadinejad s campaign has heavily courted his base of working-class families and tradition-minded voters with promises of more government aid and resistance to Western pressures over Iran s nuclear ambitions.
Mousavi s rallies in Tehran drew tens of thousands of cheering supporters, who later spent their nights shouting anti-Ahmadinejad slogans and dancing to Persian pop songs on the streets.