Unexpectedly large turnout in Iran vote

Balloting is the first electoral test since President Ahmadinejad took office in 2005.

Clutching pens and scraps of paper to write personal notes requesting assistance, the black-draped Iranian women waited for their hero to finish voting before pressing him with their problems.

But after casting ballots in joint city council and Expert Assembly elections, Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was thronged as he stepped out of a mosque polling station.

The vote is the first electoral test since the archconservative leader was elected in June 2005. Voting was extended three hours to accommodate a far larger turnout than expected, something analysts said was likely to favor reformists, who are currently shut out of every power structure.

Results will also determine the state of a power struggle between competing conservative factions: the "fundamentalist" one led by the president and the "traditionalist" one by the former police chief who is now mayor of Tehran.

Some 233,000 candidates are vying for tens-of-thousands of seats in the country's village and city councils. These were the seats from which conservatives began making a comeback in elected offices in 2002.

About 166 people vied for a spot on the 86-member Assembly of Experts, made up of carefully vetted conservative senior clerics, which has the power to change and choose Iran's supreme religious leader.

But on election day, loyalists of Mr. Ahmadinejad –who voted in his working-class east Tehran neighborhood, which has seen a blacksmith's son become the president of the Islamic Republic – wanted to celebrate their man and share their concerns.

Some cried. Some held out notes, which he dutifully gathered into an ever-increasing stack, as he does during visits across the country. One woman shouted "Hi!" to get his attention.

"Wait your turn!" the president replied, in a deliberately comic tone that sparked laughter through the tight crowd.

"He came out of the heart of the people," says Soosan Jalali, whose note asked Ahmadinejad to find a job for her daughter, a blind university graduate. "If you put all the [Iranian] presidents on one side, he is something else. We've never had one like this."

Another woman said the president had remembered by name her son, Mahdi, who had worked on his campaign last year. "He still knows everyone here," said Fatemah Jamshidi. "We always pray for him."

"These people are the pillars of the government and the [1979 Islamic] revolution," says Fatemeh Erfanian. She put her phone number on her note, so the president could solve her husband's "problem."

Mrs. Erfanian expects a reply. "He promised me," she says. "And we believe his promises."

Not all are true believers in this neighborhood or across Iran, where current economic policies are raising prices as well as uncertainty. Unease has also grown in many quarters over the friction Ahmadinejad has caused with the West, with his uncompromising comments about the destruction of Israel and his handling of the nuclear issue.

"These people are a minority in Iran," says a goldsmith called Reza, stepping in among the black-clad women and conservative men, and speaking in English. "The majority of the people are not happy with this government because the rate of inflation and [drug] addiction, and unemployment is very high."

"In English you say: 'Don't flog a dead horse,' " says Reza, who came with his daughter, and was too nervous to give his last name. "Whatever the Iranian government does [domestically], it is like 'flogging a dead horse.' It does not have any effect."

Political indifference among reformists and critics of conservative clerical rule in Iran began setting in during the late 1990s, when the popular reform-leaning President Mohammad Khatami was unable to turn huge electoral victories into a catalyst for change.

Bitterness at the lack of progress was so deep by the end of Mr. Khatami's second term that many reformist voters gave up on elections altogether and boycotted the vote, helping pave the way for a conservative victory by Ahmadinejad – and total control by conservatives of all levers of power in Iran.

That was a lesson for reformists like Kaveh Jazani, a gel-haired engineering student who stood in line to vote outside a downtown mosque.

"[Absolutely], if reformists had voted then, we would not have Ahmadinejad as president," says Mr. Jazani. "This [election] is the only thing we can decide. Usually not a lot of people vote for the city council, but everything is being controlled by conservatives, and we want some reformist seats."

"A lot of people have given up on elections, and they won't come," says Navid Naderi, another engineering student standing in line beside Mr. Jazani, his long hair keeping out the winter chill. "If those who did not take part in the presidential election vote today, it could make a difference."

"Everyone's decision is different," protests a man standing behind the two students in line. "I voted for and support Ahmadinejad, and I don't live [in a poor area]. And so does my son."

"Khatami came to power with 27 million votes, and Ahmadinejad had just seven million," argues back Jazani.

But the man and his son were not the only Ahmadinejad believers waiting in this line to support his conservative faction again. Law consultant Khosrow Shahin says he took the president to task four years ago, when Ahmadinejad was mayor of Tehran.

"I argued with him, very hard. Very rough. But then he laughed, and kissed me, and said: 'Sit with me, you are my friend,'" recalls Mr. Shahin, in English. "He accepts criticism. And now, when I wrote a 10-page letter to the president [critical of all levels of government], they telephoned me, and one by one, page by page, item by item, they answered it."

Ahmadinejad "is really without ceremony, without lying," says Shahin.

That enthusiasm is not shared on a sidewalk 100 yards away, where Hamid and his wife have decided it is not worth voting.

"We're tired of the system," says the real estate dealer. "It's 27 years since the revolution. There have been lots of people in power; the situation has changed a lot, but none have done what they are supposed to do."

But their son, Iman, decided to vote for Ahmadinejad, who he said was "somebody who would be familiar with society, and not make promises but do things." Some 70 percent of his friends will vote, he figures, and the rest will not.

Such dilemmas do not afflict most people in the president's home neighborhood. There is a different reality at the mosque where Ahmadinejad voted, in front of which, during his 2005 presidential victory, large American and Israeli flags were painted onto the street for motorists to desecrate by driving over.

"He's an angel! This guy's an angel!" shouts one man, in tears as he makes his way though the throng and security guards to the president.

"Nobody accepted me, but this one ... he went through a lot of trouble to get me a job," the man announces. "I'll give my heart to him, if he wants it. I'll even give my eyes for him. He has given me much!"

"Ahmadinejad is like the truth. He's from here," says Hassan Hosseini, after the presidential motorcade finally departed. "You saw the example: He stood for an hour and answered every question. He could have just driven off."

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