Iranians Decide Between Incumbent Or Reformist

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Iranians are voting in the country's presidential election. The race has come down to a choice between two candidates: incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and a moderate reformer, Mir Hossein Mousavi.


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

Millions of voters have been standing in lines all across Iran today. It is election day. A huge turnout is expected for a presidential race in which President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is trying to keep his job. He faces three challengers. One main challenger is Mir-Hossein Mousavi, former prime minister. He's considered a reformer, and he has generated immense excitement as we've heard in recent days.

NPR's Mike Shuster has been watching what's happening today in Tehran. And Mike, what have you seen?

MIKE SHUSTER: Well, I've been to several polling places around Tehran. The east, south and north of - center of the city. And these are places where hundreds of people have gathered pretty much from the moment that the polls opened at eight o'clock in the morning. And they've been standing in lines that come out the polling station doors and snake down the sidewalk and around the corners. I think that they're - one place that I visited, the wait must have been at least an hour to vote. And it's unusual, because Iranians in past elections haven't generally flocked to the polls right when they open. They tend to vote in the afternoon and on into the evening. So the initial indication is that there's a great excitement and great commitment to voting on the part of a very large portion of Iran's 46 million registered voters.

INSKEEP: Now you mentioned four candidates. How does the election work?

SHUSTER: Well, there are four candidates, and the winner must get 50 percent plus one, an absolute majority, to be elected president outright. If nobody achieves an out and out majority today, there will be a runoff a week from today, next Friday, between the two frontrunners. There's only been one runoff like this in the history of the Islamic Republic. That was the last time, when Ahmadinejad won. So both Ahmadinejad and the primary challenger, Mr. Mousavi, are hoping for a knockout blow in the first round so that they don't have to go to a second round.

INSKEEP: What about the other two candidates?

SHUSTER: The other two candidates we haven't heard much about, but they're significant. One is Mehdi Karroubi, who is a reformist cleric who ran last time, and he could take votes away from Mousavi. The other is Mohsen Rezaee, a former commander of the Revolutionary Guards. He describes himself as a pragmatic conservative and is challenging Ahmadinejad from the right, in effect. He could take votes away from Ahmadinejad. So their presence in the race, it's not expected to accumulate a lot of votes, and neither is expected to be a surprise winner or a surprise frontrunner. But votes for them could force this election into a second round.

INSKEEP: Mike, there have been suspicions that this election could be not -maybe not completely made up - the results might not be completely made up, but that they could be manipulated. Is there a chance of that?

SHUSTER: There is a chance of that, or at least many, many Iranians believe that there is a chance of that. The election mechanics are organized by the Interior Ministry, which is part of Ahmadinejad's government and is generally placed in the conservative side of politics here. There were deep suspicions that there was rigging or at least messing with the vote four years ago when Ahmadinejad was elected. And already today, there's a report that Mr. Mousavi's campaign has written a letter to the supreme leader saying that there are irregular activities taking place at polling places, specifically that their representatives that are allowed to be at every polling place in order to monitor and observe have been prevented. So there are already questions being raised about this.

INSKEEP: You know, Mike Shuster, I'm thinking about America in election mornings, where it has sometimes been a hard-fought campaign where people become very passionate and in some instances they may have even told pollsters this is the most important election of their lives, and there's a moment of rather profound emotion or a sense of great importance when Election Day finally arrives. Is that sense settled over Iran today?

SHUSTER: Absolutely, it has. In the polling places that I went to, everyone that I spoke to had an emotion, even - whether they were supporters of Mousavi or supporters of Ahmadinejad, there's a feeling among voters when you talk to them that Iran is on the cusp of a very significant moment and that they're taking part in it. There's a great deal of anticipation.

INSKEEP: NPR's Mike Shuster is in Tehran, and he'll be covering the election results, which we'll begin to get through the weekend. Mike, thanks.

SHUSTER: You're welcome, Steve.

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