Rafsanjani Has Slim Lead in Iran's Early Polls

Iran's presidential election Friday is the most tightly contested contest since the Islamic revolution of 1979, according to preliminary polls. Former President Hashemi Rafsanjani is considered the frontrunner, but analysts say none of the seven candidates is likely to obtain 50 percent of the vote, with a run-off race possible. NPR's Ivan Watson reports from Tehran.

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Tomorrow in Iran, voters go to the polls to choose a new president. The outgoing president, Mohammad Khatami, is limited by the constitution to two terms. Analysts in Iran are calling this election the most tightly contested presidential race since the founding of the Islamic republic more than a quarter-century ago. NPR's Ivan Watson reports from Tehran.

IVAN WATSON reporting:

Iran has changed a lot since the early austere days of the 1979 Islamic revolution. One of the conservative candidates in tomorrow's election, Mohammad Qalibaf, opened a rally this week with dance music that set a crowd of young Iranians clapping and whistling in their seats.

(Soundbite of rally; crowd applauding and whistling)

WATSON: This was all the more surprising because not long ago, when Qalibaf was the national police chief, his men would have immediately arrested these Iranians for daring to dance or play loud music in public.

Mr. KARIM SADJADPOUR (Analyst): As opposed to elections in the past, all of these candidates are running on platforms of, you know, democratization and openness and social freedoms and relations with the West.

WATSON: Iran analyst Karim Sadjadpour says the candidates must take account of the fact that more than half of the Iranian electorate was born after the revolution.

Mr. SADJADPOUR: People know now when they want to come into power and they're trying to attract the popular vote that by running on platforms of Islam and `death to America' and things like that, it's not going to win them the favor of a very young electorate.

WATSON: In the run-up to the election, the hard-line clerics on Iran's Guardian Council disqualified more than a thousand would-be candidates, including all of the known reformist politicians. But apparently worried about the possibility of very low voter turnout, Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, intervened, and two reformists were allowed to enter the race.

Conservative front-runner Hashemi Rafsanjani has been running on a message of change, suggesting that as a former president, he is the only man powerful enough to dramatically reform Iran's system of government. Speaking to a gathering of the country's top industrialists, this millionaire cleric stressed economic reform and improving ties with the West.

Former President HASHEMI RAFSANJANI (Iran): (Through Translator) We need to pave the way for foreign companies to come here and invest. If we make them feel comfortable here, then we'll reduce unemployment and reduce inflation.

WATSON: Rafsanjani did not campaign around the country. Instead, he had young fashionable Iranians, like 27-year-old Amir Shamshadi(ph), doing the work for him. This week, Shamshadi directed teen-age boys with moussed-up hair and girls in brightly colored head scarves to hand out campaign stickers and pop music CDs to passing drivers, all under a Rafsanjani sign rigged with flashing strobe lights.

Unidentified Girl #1: (Farsi spoken)

Unidentified Boy: (Farsi spoken)

Unidentified Girl #2: (Farsi spoken)

WATSON: But several passersby, like this white-haired pensioner named Hamdulah Abduli(ph), called the campaign workers fools for helping what he described as corrupt clerics who oppress the population.

Mr. HAMDULAH ABDULI: (Farsi spoken)

Unidentified Translator: He says, `I'm a nationalist and I love my country. And I don't like these people who are doing this to this country.'

WATSON: Are you going to vote on Friday?

Unidentified Translator: (Farsi spoken)

Mr. ABDULI: No.

WATSON: Opponents of Iran's ruling clerics are divided, between those who want to boycott tomorrow's vote in protest and those who support the pro-reform candidate, Mustafa Mohegh.

(Soundbite of rally)

Unidentified Man: (Farsi spoken)

(Soundbite of cheering and applause)

WATSON: Some 10,000 people gathered for a Mohegh rally in a soccer stadium this week. The chanting crowd demanded the release of all political prisoners.

(Soundbite of crowd noise)

WATSON: After the rally, more than a thousand young Iranians marched into the street singing a song that denounces injustice and tyranny.

Group of People: (Singing in Farsi in unison)

WATSON: They were met by more than a hundred stick-wielding police, among them one young officer who sang along for a moment and happily declared himself a Mohegh supporter, that is until his commander ominously ordered him to draw his baton and follow the demonstrators.

While polls show Rafsanjani to be in the lead, they also suggest he does not have enough support to secure an outright victory. If no candidate receives at least 50 percent of the vote on Friday, then the two top finishers will have to compete in a second-round run-off. Ivan Watson, NPR News, Tehran.

(Soundbite of music)

ROBERT SIEGEL (Host): You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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