Sunday, June 19, 2005

ABC News: Rafsanjani faces run-off vote against hard-liner

ABC News: Rafsanjani faces run-off vote against hard-liner: "Rafsanjani faces run-off vote against hard-liner
Reuters

Jun 18, 2005 — By Parisa Hafezi
TEHRAN (Reuters) - Pragmatic cleric Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani narrowly clinched top spot on Saturday in Iran's nail-biting presidential election, but now faces a run-off against his closest rival, hard-liner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

The unexpected result left voters with a stark choice between the experienced Rafsanjani, who has pledged better ties with the West, and Tehran mayor Ahmadinejad, who appeals to the pious poor and is wary of re-opening talks with Washington.

Final Interior Ministry figures showed pre-election favorite Rafsanjani won 21.0 percent of the 29.32 million votes cast, a turnout of 63 percent. Ahmadinejad got 19.5 percent.

Ahmadinejad's performance surprised many as opinion polls had placed him well down the list of seven candidates.

But his reputation as a man of the people fiercely loyal to Iran's system of clerical rule appeared to have won him strong support in rural areas and among the urban poor, for whom unemployment and the cost of living are the main concerns.

Whoever wins, unelected Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei will keep the last word on state affairs and hard-liners will retain key levers of power such as security and the courts.

Reformists, stunned by the poor showing of their favorite Mostafa Moin, a former education minister who finished fifth with 13.8 percent, debated whether to throw their weight behind Rafsanjani in Friday's second round.

"Rafsanjani won't crack down on the youth as Ahmadinejad may do. There's still a chance," said Maryam, 24, one of about 200 Moin campaign workers gathered at his HQ on Saturday afternoon.

But in an indication that the run-off too may be unpredictable, others said they would not back Rafsanjani, who is bidding to regain the post he held from 1989 to 1997.

"Those who voted for Ahmadinejad are the fruit of Rafsanjani's era of poverty and corruption," said Saeed, 18, who planned to boycott the run-off vote.

"THE PEOPLE'S CANDIDATE"

At a hastily arranged news conference Ahmadinejad criticized opponents for spending large sums on slick television adverts and organising rallies featuring pop music and girls wearing skimpy dress considered immoral by religious conservatives.

"I am the people's candidate because people helped my campaign centers and in my campaign centers we did not spend billions (of Iranian rials)," he said.

Reformist candidates Moin and former parliament speaker Mehdi Karroubi, who defied expectations by taking an early lead in preliminary vote counts, made vague allegations of electoral fraud.

"Despite the many warnings by the president and the Interior Ministry and also political parties, we see that an organized movement has targeted the health of this election," Moin said in a statement.

"With this action our new-born democracy is in danger," he added, without making specific allegations.

Ayatollah Khamenei congratulated Iranians on the respectable turnout, which he took as a repudiation of U.S. criticisms that the poll was unfair because the unelected Guardian Council had barred many candidates from standing. "With your wise participation in the elections, you have once again announced your strong will to be independent, defend Islamic values and have an Islamic democracy," he said.

Outgoing reformist President Mohammad Khatami described the poll as "totally healthy" and said the result would not derail the changes he initiated because "reforms belong to the people."

The election was the climax to a vibrant campaign that featured Western-style television clips and exuberant street rallies that flouted strict Islamic moral codes.

Even conservative candidates adopted the language of reform and dropped their usual open hostility to the West to appeal to young voters eager for an end to isolation. Half the population is under 25 and anyone over 15 can vote. (Additional reporting by Hossein Jasseb and Amir Paivar)

Copyright 2005 Reuters News Service. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed."

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