Iranians walk past a huge billboard depicting Supreme Leader Ayatollah… (Abedin Taherkenareh / European…)
TEHRAN — Six presidential hopefuls wrapped up their campaigns Thursday as millions of Iranians prepared to choose a successor to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Polls indicate no candidate may garner a majority in Friday's voting, forcing a runoff election among the two top finishers on June 21, official media reported.
Friday’s election is the first since the disputed 2009 balloting that gave Ahmadinejad a second term amid allegations of vote-rigging, triggering massive street protests and a police crackdown. Iranian authorities have vowed that the tumultuous scene of four years ago will not be repeated.
Improving the slumping economy has been a major theme throughout the campaign, with candidates vowing to reduce inflation and unemployment. Western-led sanctions tied to Iran’s controversial nuclear program have battered the economy. Unemployment among youth reportedly reaches 40%.
Campaigns formally ended at 8 a.m. Thursday, but not after political enthusiasts caused traffic jams in the capital, shouting support for their candidates from vehicles cruising slowly through the streets. Many waved posters from cars.
The almost three-week campaign picked up momentum in recent days following a series of formal debates that gave voters a better idea of the candidates, who include five conservatives and a centrist, Hassan Rowhani, 65, the sole cleric in the race.
Rowhani emerged as the only moderate-leaning presidential aspirant after reformist candidate Mohammad Reza Aref dropped out this week and endorsed him. The idea was to unify the moderate and reformist vote, a strategy that could prove successful against a divided conservative lineup, analysts say.
In recent days, Rowhani’s campaign has been generating considerable buzz. He was endorsed by a pair of moderate ex-presidents, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami. Rowhani has tried to appeal to the huge youth vote, vowing to reduce unemployment among the young and backing gender equality, a sensitive issue here.
The conservatives, meantime, failed to unite around a single officer-seeker, meaning their vote probably will be splintered. The three presumed conservative front-runners are Saeed Jalili, Iran’s nuclear negotiator; former Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati; and Tehran Mayor Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf. All are said to be close to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who holds the final say in matters of state under Iran’s theocratic system of governance.
Rounding out the candidates are a pair of independents, Mohsen Rezaei, a former Revolutionary Guard commander, and ex-Telecommunications Minister Mohammad Gharazi.
Ahmadinejad is constitutionally barred from seeking a third term. The bombastic president has fallen out of favor with the clerical leadership and was thwarted in a bid to position his top aide and close friend, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, as a potential successor. A cleric-dominated vetting council barred the candidacies of Mashaei and Rafsanjani, whose prospective run had energized reform-minded Iranians. Many reformists now appear to be leaning toward Rowhani’s candidacy, analysts say.
Authorities say more than 66,000 polling stations will be open, with about 60% of Iran’s 50.5 million eligible voters are expected to cast ballots.
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Special correspondent Mostaghim reported from Tehran, and special correspondent Sandels and Times staff writer McDonnell from Beirut.