An Iranian displays her ink-stained finger after voting in Qom, about 80… (Ebrahim Noroozi, Associated…)
TEHRAN — Electoral authorities were counting ballots Saturday after tens of millions of Iranians turned out to vote for a successor to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the first presidential election since the disputed 2009 balloting led to street protests and a major crackdown on the opposition.
Early returns indicated that Hassan Rowhani, a centrist cleric considered the sole moderate in the race, had jumped to a surprisingly large lead, garnering close to 50% of the vote, near the margin needed for victory.
However, the returns were incomplete, with only about 5 million votes counted, about 15% of the projected total, and officials were still hand-counting the ballots. If no candidate receives a majority, the election will go to a runoff vote June 21.
Running second, but well behind Rowhani, was Tehran Mayor Mohammed Baqer Qalibaf, who was attracting less than 20% of the vote, according to early returns. Qalibaf is a former police commander and war veteran known for championing major development projects in the capital.
The wide lead for Rowhani, considered a long-shot candidate just a few weeks ago, indicated that divisions among the pro-government bloc of candidates had cost a trio of hard-line contenders, including Qalibaf.
By contrast, moderates rallied around the candidacy of Rowhani.
Rowhani, a legal expert who had vowed to open Iran up to the world and help end its isolation, generated considerable support among traditional reformist constituencies, including huge numbers of young voters and urban dwellers disaffected by Iran's hard-line leadership. Momentum for Rowhani's campaign was building in recent days, and early returns suggest his candidacy may have spurred many voters to come to the polls.
Overall turnout may have reached 80%, Press TV, Iran's English-language news service, reported Saturday. A day before the election, officials had been predicting a 60% turnout.
Because of long lines, the voting deadline was extended several times, ultimately until 11 p.m. in Tehran, five hours after the scheduled closing time. Voting began at 8 a.m.
Authorities reported no major irregularities or security issues in the first presidential balloting since the disputed 2009 vote, which resulted in mass protests. Ahmadinejad ultimately won a second term, despite charges that the vote was fixed against the reformist slate. The constitution bars him from seeking a third term.
Among the first to cast a ballot early Friday was the country's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who urged all Iranians to exercise their right to vote. He also told Washington "to hell with you" after some U.S. officials questioned the transparency of the election.
Khamenei has the last say on matters of state in Iran's theocratic system.
The government here views elections as key to its international credibility and had 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, a charge denied by the State Department.
The campaign has been dominated by concern about the nation's moribund economy, which has been battered by Western-led sanctions tied to Iran's controversial nuclear program.
Along with choosing a president, Iranians are electing representatives for thousands of city and village council slots. State news media called the election the largest in Iran's history.
Also on the presidential ballot were three pro-government "principalist" hard-liners: Saeed Jalili, the nation's longtime international nuclear negotiator; former Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati; and Qalibaf. Rounding out the slate were two independent candidates: Mohsen Rezai, a former Revolutionary Guard commander, and Mohammad Gharazi, a former oil minister and telecommunications chief. Both are considered conservatives.
Special correspondent Mostaghim reported from Tehran and Times staff writer McDonnell from Beirut.