TEHRAN -- Officials reported high turnout Friday as Iranians went to the polls in the first presidential election since disputed balloting four years ago resulted in street protests and massive unrest.
Among the early voters was the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who urged all Iranians to exercise their right to vote.
“I expect all people to take part in the elections,” Khamanei, the ultimate authority on matters of state, told journalists early Friday after casting his ballot.
Dominating the campaign have been concerns about the nation’s moribund economy, battered by Western-led sanctions tied to Iran’s controversial nuclear program.
State television was filled with images of people lining up to vote and placing their folded ballot sheets into plastic boxes at polling stations across the country. Officials reported no security problems or major irregularities.
Iran is choosing a successor to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has served two terms and is constitutionally barred from seeking a third.
Friday’s election is the first presidential contest since the contentious 2009 vote, which was marred by allegations of vote-rigging that prompted large-scale street protests. Ahmadinejad was declared the winner, and police cracked down on the so-called Green Movement, quashing many Iranians’ hopes for reform.
The government here views elections as key to its international credibility and has urged a large turnout as a rebuff to Iran’s “enemies,” principally the United States and its allies. Tehran has accused Washington of seeking to deflate voter participation.
As balloting proceeded at a brisk pace, officials extended the voting period for two hours, until 8 p.m. local time, state media reported
The vote count is expected to begin immediately after the polls close.
Many experts predict that no single candidate will garner a majority, forcing a runoff election on June 21.
Along with the president, Iranians are electing representatives for thousands of city and village council slots. State media called Friday’s balloting the largest election in Iran’s history.
More than 50 million Iranians are eligible to vote, the government said.
The presidential race has taken on a competitive edge in recent days as moderates have rallied around a single candidate, Hassan Rowhani, a centrist and close ally of ex-President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.
Rowhani, the only cleric in the running, has backed a reformist agenda, including improved relations with the West. Analysts say his support has been rising, especially among young voters and disenchanted middle-class urban residents.
Also on the ballot are a trio of pro-government “principalist” hard-liners: Saeed Jalili, the nation’s longtime international nuclear negotiator; former Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati; and Tehran Mayor Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, a former military official and police commander.
The three are likely to split the conservative vote, experts say, boosting the chances of Rowhani.
Rounding out the presidential hopefuls are two independent candidates: Mohsen Rezaei, a former Revolutionary Guard commander, and Mohammad Gharazi, an ex-oil minister and telecommunications chief.
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Mostaghim is a special correspondent. Times staff writer McDonnell contributed to this report from Beirut.